Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This was one of the most difficult weeks I’ve endured in a very long time, it’s 2:12 in the morning, and I’m tired. Nevertheless, I have managed to finish this book (in more time than I was hoping, but we’ll get to that), all the while not falling behind in my assignments, and not dying.

This week, I got sick. And I don’t get sick often, so this was sort of a huge roadblock in my plans for productivity this week. But yes, on Monday night, during my English class I realized that my throat really freaking hurt, and the night was long and torturous. Luckily, I had a nice dude there willing to buy me life-sustaining chocolate, and I made it through. Over the next two days, I was exactly the sort of ill person who doesn’t get dressed or eat, but hovers around moaning a lot, looking perfectly pathetic in unbrushed hair and a disheveled fleece wrap. And I felt like crap, and I didn’t do any homework.

By Thursday, I was headachy, sneezy, and coughy, but I decided I wasn’t ill enough to miss another class, so it was off to psych at 5pm. Let me just say that I really hate being sick around other people; I feel like they should be avoiding me, lest they catch the plague seeds. I’m also really heavy on the hand sanitizer, just so they know that I AM conscious of my health, but quite frankly I hate everything about hand sanitizer, and it stings like a bitch, and overall it did not make me happy. About an hour into my (three-hour) class, I was strongly regretting my decision to tough it out. And I came prepared and was able to buy my own chocolate.

As of today (Saturday) I’m still wheezy and sneezy and uncomfortable, but I managed to get out of the house and do stuff, but not homework. Which is bad, because I had a very important essay due Monday and it’s written, but I need to fix it, and I simply, truly, have no idea what to do. How do you make assertions sound more like firm suggestions?

Anyway, that’s why it took me so long to finish this book.

So a couple weeks ago, I wandered into a library, which we’ve kind of established at this point is a bad idea unless I actually NEED something new to read. Aside from the nearly magnetic draw I feel to books, the librarian loves to take advantage of people with literary fetishes and goes around pointing things out and making them sound completely delectable.

So this is one that she recommended. And I will never say that I don’t trust her judgement, because I do, because this book was really, really good. The story is about, and told from the point of view of, a young woman name Anna Frith, who is a very simple citizen living in a very small town in England in 1666. Her husband, a miner who worked in the lead mines her small village was known for, had died soon before the events of the book, leaving her with her sons, two year-old Jamie and infant Tommy.

By profession, Anna is the housekeeper for her village’s rector, Mr. Mompellion, and his wife, Elinor, who are both central characters of the book.

That’s the setup we’re allowed at the beginning of the book (actually, the book begins at the end of the story and then the adventure is told in flashback, but I won’t spoil the ‘ending’), right before tragedy strikes: several months after her husband’s death, Anna allows into her home a friendly male lodger from London, only for him to soon fall to the deadly Plague germs, which terrorized London, but had thus far left Anna’s homevillage untouched. Unfortunately, it only takes one plague victim to spread the disease through a village as small as Anna’s.

Soon, there arise steadily more instances of plague, the illness spreads, and gradually more and more of Anna’s neighbors die until the rector decides to bind the citizens by an oath: they will close the road in and out of the village until the contagion has completely passed. Thus begins their year of wonders.

This book is not for the squeamish. I mean that in the most complete sense possible: do not read this book if you are disturbed by graphic depictions of people lashing their own bodies with nails, women sticking their arms into other women’s birth canals and manipulating unborn babies, or bursting, aching, pus-seeping plague sores. Really. Not kidding here. If this were a movie, I would spend a great deal of time shielding my eyes. And we really do get an up-close-and-personal view on widespread sickness, because Anna, as the rector’s servant, must assist him and his wife (mostly his wife) in caring for the sick and dying, and she becomes very familiar with the sight.

For all of that, though, I did really like this book. It’s a historical novel, which I don’t stray towards with any particular desperation, but like because I learn from them. While I knew probably the average amount of common knowledge on the plague, this book put you right inside the head of a scared, grieving woman in a quarantine village who had to face the terror of plague every day for a year; you watch her struggles with her identity, her faith (there is a lot of religion in this book, but it’s not preachy at all), learning what she needs to know to do the job she needs to do, getting to know the people around her in ways she hadn’t dreamt of and didn’t necessarily like, and her own slightly disturbed past. She watches as her neighbors fall one by one, sating the desperation of those left standing, and dealing with the changes left in everyone once the ordeal has passed.

The novel is narrated in a rich, smooth quasi-olde-English language, most notable in actual dialogue. It’s strong enough to be noticeable, but not so strong as to make the reading difficult. Anna speaks in an intimate voice about all of her concerns, involving you in everything that goes on, including the deeply sensuous (and not entirely sexual) memories of her late husband and her poor children. In fact, one of my favorite things about this book is that you could absolutely feel everything that Anna felt; the description was spot-on, exactly what you needed to hear, yet they weren’t huge chunks of text that are sort of in the right direction but ultimately tedious and boring. You felt with Anna, and for Anna.

Non sequitur time. You know what I’ve been thinking about lately? Perspective. Every book I’ve read since I started this blog has been in first person perspective, and my next one will be as well. And I’m not sure why the sudden onslaught of first-person narratives. I remember a time when I hardly read anything in first-person, and not because I was avoiding it or anything, I just didn’t have it. That said, I really like this perspective, but I also quite like the other perspectives, which, recently, I most commonly read in fanfiction. I even come across the occasional second-person story, and if those are done well, they’re incredibly enjoyable.

I think the thing about first-person is that you only truly get to know one character, and that’s the narrator, and you only get to know him/her if he/she lets you. A first-person story is incredibly biased, which means that maybe not everything is exactly as the narrator says it is, but somehow you know that the important details are intact, and it absolutely makes for a good story. Besides that, it’s the best you’re going to get- because if you go and ask someone else, they’ll only be telling you the story from their perspective, and that’s the same thing from a little to the left.

So maybe that’s the thing with first-person. It’s like having a story told to you; you hear a voice, and by the end of the adventure, you not only know the narrator, you’re her good friend.

And of course I’m not saying this couldn’t be achieved in any other perspective… I’m mostly thinking in motion right now. Anyway, thus concludes.

Right now I have….five books in my pile on my table, but I’ll only be reading one of them immediately. After that, I need to go to the library and check out some V-recommended books. Tomorrow, though, will probably be spend (had better be spent) writing this big important essay, because that’s due Monday night and I certainly won’t have time during the day. You know what bites? Even when I finish this, I don’t get a reprieve- I have another essay due NEXT Monday, and this one doesn’t just need to be fixed, it actually needs to be written, and that’s going to be a bitch.

But, you know. I’ll live. I just need my chocolate.

Oh crap, I just remembered I have my psych midterm this Thursday. Maybe I won’t live. I’m going to bed know.

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 3:04 am  Comments (3)  
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