I’m not a big fan of book groups. Or rather, like a lot of things, they look good on paper but don’t work that well in real life. Reading and talking about a book are two different skills. Book group members are often good at the former but not so good at the latter, so someone invariably downloads a list of questions, which is supposed to help but actually makes things worse. Discussion is superficial, stilted and (unsurprising) frequently drifts from the book altogether. Or maybe I’ve been unlucky in my choice of book groups.
But, hey, I’m a born optimist. So when I saw a local book group advertising Year of Wonders by “Pulitzer prize-winning author” Geraldine Brooks, hope triumphed over experience and I thought I’d give it a go.
Year of Wonders is a novel inspired by the true story of the village of Eyam, in Derbyshire. In 1665 Eyam suffered an outbreak of Black Death (Bubonic plague), thought to have been brought there by flea-infested cloth from London, and the villagers quarantined themselves and the village to prevent the disease spreading. It’s thought that over half died. The book opens not long before the plague strikes and we see the tragedy unfold through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young servant .
Maybe it was the author’s “prize-winner” label, or the glowing reviews on the dust jacket, or that I was familiar with the Eyam story and thought it was ripe for fictionalisation. Whatever the reason I finished reading Year of Wonders feeling incredibly let down. The first two-thirds has much that is touching and evocative: Anna witnesses the first death, tends the sick and dying, including her own children, acts as an impromptu mid-wife, is bullied by her father and even works down a mine. But the final third deteriorates as rapidly as an infected villager. In case the day to day business of survival in a plague village is too bland, Brooks spices it up with mob-rule, flagellation, a puritan girl turned whore (cue al fresco sex and spewing), ghosts, witches, devil-worship, and a baby’s skull. The icing on this gothic pastiche cake comes in the shape of Anna and the (recently widowed) vicar, Michael Mompellion, engaging in bodice-ripper style sex – “a sharp pang of desire pierced me,” “the warm rush of our pleasure pierced us both”. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s meant to be a send-up.
And we’re not done yet. In Brooks’ Eyam improbable events pile up as fast as the corpses: an unfaithful wife, a bastard child, attempted sororicide, a vengeful son. At the end of it all Anna winds up almost 2,000 miles away from Eyam in Oran, Algeria. Yeah, right.
The characterisation is as patchy as the plot. Anna scorns superstition, questions religion and seeks a scientific approach to the problem of the plague; reads not only English but also Latin and (by the end) Arabic; sees a causal link between her father’s brutishness and his own her harsh experiences as a boy. A seventeenth century teenager who’s never been much beyond the boundaries of her village? I don’t think so. She’s too knowing, too modern. Michael Mompellion descends into mere plot device, turning as he does from nice to nasty without pausing for breath then swinging between the two like a pendulum as the story-line dictates. The revelation of his ‘misplaced sadomasochistic zeal’ (as the Guardian describes it) during his marriage, for example, seems to serve no purpose other than to give Anna a reason to run from him thereby setting in motion the sequence of events needed to get her to Algeria.
Brooks has indeed won the Pulitzer prize but for her later (2006) novel March. I might read it one day. It has to be better than this?
Rating: 0 don’t bother (though some the group seemed to love it)