Locked in: Year of Wonders a wonder itself

By Elizabeth Kiem

The events of Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, Year of Wonders, are not for the faint of heart. The year is 1666, the wonders of which are predominantly sorcery, lynching, fever, and pus. Here, a witch hunt is not just an archaic and paranoid Puritanical norm, but a particularly ribald account of Satanic copulation followed by an exceptionally obscene public response involving a pit of fermented pig excrement. Similarly, the promised fever and pus are not elements of a pedestrian infectious event, but the gruesome footprints of Bubonic Plague as it decimates one third of a small English village.
Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, took as the basis for her tale the true story of an English town called Eyam, the remains of which  “ramblers” may still stumble upon in the Derbyshire hills. According to scant historical documents and abundant local legend, the Plague came to Eyam on a bolt of cloth and quickly settled in. But when the first few deaths made clear the virulence of the scourge, the people of Eyam chose to lock themselves in with the killer, rather than spread it further with their flight.
Even after witnessing the modern horrors of mass death in Somalia and Bosnia, writes Brooks in an afterward, “My thoughts often returned to Eyam, and it was this story, above all others, I longed to tell.”
The voice Brooks adopts to tell the story of Eyam is that of Anna Frith, a widow whose boarder brings the plague to town on a bolt of cloth and whose young children are the first to die. Against all odds, Anna survives, learning the trades of herbalist, midwife, and miner in the course of the ghastly year. When the self-imposed quarantine is lifted, Anna does flee the village, but only to save a life, after losing so many.
Year of Wonders was selected as a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book and is one of three finalists for the Library of Virginia Literacy Award for best work of fiction by a Virginia author. Brooks has written two non-fiction books, but her debut novel distinguishes her as a writer with ample imagination and dark realism. Beneath her pen, sinners become saints and death becomes art, while flagellation, blasphemy, and necrotic tissue become things of wonder.

Geraldine Brooks will sign copies of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague at Barnes & Noble on Thursday at 7pm. Barracks Road Shopping Center. 984-0466

Read more on: geraldine brooks