Monday, May 16, 2011

Biblophile: The Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague This is the novel by Geraldine Brooks I finished two weeks ago, swooning. I was so thrilled to be transported, so happy to have found a small but significant novel to rest my mind inside, even if the resting did take place in a village being slowly demolished by a 17th century plague in a Derbyshire village. It was a good remedy from the brontosorus of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen- a novel I dove into fully expecting to if not love, deeply like, as I had his Corrections. Freedom left me cold. I couldn't care. The essential and inexplicable ingredient for novelistic passion.  The writing was good. The characters detailed. The settings precise. The plot went somewhere. But I didn't care where it went, or about the people it happened to.

Year of Wonders begins with the protagonist Anna Frith, widowed at 18 years with two tiny sons she loves entirely.  Her love for these boys is detailed beautifully, so beautifully. The way a mother's eye sees her children when they are small is a passionate, sensual and ferocious thing, and the descriptions of Anna nursing her littlest boy alongside the river brought tears to my eyes.  I felt the bonds of human life as they extend backward farther than the eye can see, but not beyond the novelist imagination. Mrs. Brooks uses fine historical details to layer and layer and layer each plot turn, and I felt myself enveloped in her mastery.  Mrs. Brooks based this novel on the true story of a village infected with Plague that decided, with the leadership of their preacher, to quarantine themselves until the dying had stopped.  In this dark nightmare of a bubble, the story takes place. Anna befriends the preacher and his selfless but bracingly practical wife after the inevitable worst happens: her two sons both die.  I found  myself late at night, covers pulled to my chin as I cried and read the description of Anna's little boy's slow dying.  I was transported to Ever's hospitalization with RSV when Mrs. Brooks described the little boys grey pallor, his struggle to breathe, and what makes my stomach turn and my eyes fill to even recount- his acquiescence of his nursies.  When Ever gave up on nursing, I felt the beginnings, the fringes, of despair.  Reading this reminded me of what Mr. Curry and I had remarked to each other more than once- thank God we live here and now, where our baby could be saved.  And oh God, to think of all the mothers.... To walk alongside a narration of a mother who could do absolutely nothing as her son fought to breathe and then slowly slipped away, dying in her arms, was not an experience I'd seek again.  But it is truly great writing.

The story unfolds with incredible precision and pacing.  The only place lacking in a perfect human heartbeat was in Anna's mourning of her son's. In the novel Anna takes on the work of the dying and as a midwife to women birthing amongst this tragedy, and surely any woman in that position would have grief deferred. Still, I think the muck black river of her grief was not accounted for enough. 

Highly Recommended.
Elizabeth said...

We have similar taste, I do believe! I loved the Geraldine Brooks novel, really loved it. And I thought I was the only human who stopped reading Franzen's new book because I was bored out of my mind. There, I said it.

Love to you!

Marion said...

Sounds like a great read. I'm going to put it on my TBR list. I didn't care for "Freedom" either and still don't understand all the broo-haha about it. I found it totally blah....

I'm reading a fabulously riveting historical-ish novel, "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness. So far, I can't put it down. Thank GOD for books!


"A good book should leave you... slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it." ~William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958

Anonymous said...

I just finished this!

Actually, I am quite haunted still from the passage where her baby dies beside her, and the description of her scream outside the cottage. I'd wager she wrote more, but a heavy handed editor sliced away much of the description of the grief. I LOVED every second of this story. Although, I was a little sad when the Reverend went all brutish and evil, only out for sex. I kinda wanted them to ride off in the sunset, but I loved the way she wrote the characters and their fates, nonetheless.

Carrie said...

Wasn't that a wonderful read? I was actually scared to read it because it's so hard for me to read about children hurt or dying, but I thought the description of her love for them was so deeply touching. I was so sad to lose the two herbalist-witch characters, even though it opened up a new realm for Anna.

Lone Star Ma said...

I also didn't like Freedom - I didn't even finish and I will read cereal boxes if nothing better happens along.

Chaos and love said...

I swooooned awhile back to this novel. "People of the Book" is just as swoony, but in a different way :) Don't usually read Franzen. Thanks for your insights :)

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