Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a troubling book for me to review. Perhaps because I read it so close on the heels of Stepping Heavenward, the portrayal of the protagonist’s struggle with her faith during a year of unimaginable struggle, trial, and loss left something to be desired.
YOW is a riveting, historical fictive account of a small English village during 1665-1666 that chooses to isolate itself in order to prevent spreading the Plague to neighboring cities and towns. (There really was such a town: Eyam.) The rector and his wife, along with Anna Frith, the protagonist, are the backbone of support, care, and faith for the other villagers as they quickly lose two thirds of their number. Brooks does an excellent job of keeping the suspense going throughout the book while giving the reader a feel for the slow pace of life a 17th century village might have.
During their struggle with the Plague, the villagers struggle profoundly with faith, superstition, ignorance, and loyalty to one another. Terrible things happen. Redemption is brought about. People live and die. But, here is where Brooks fails me as an author…. (the ending will be revealed in the next paragraph, so stop reading if you plan to read the book!)
Brooks is a secular author who has spent quite a bit of time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East as well as much time researching this book in England. Therefore, it should have been no surprise to me that a book which has a strong feminist undercurrent should, in the end, place the protagonist in a setting that shows a female triumphing over her circumstances; I have no problems with that necessarily. That the rector is proven to be a complete hypocrite, and Anna ends up finding comfort and meaning in an Islamic community on the Mediterranean seemed to me to undermine so much of the struggle these people when through during a real time in history. I truly can’t imagine watching my husband and two children die, my friends die, my neighbors turn against each other, and finally have to run for my life. Yet, I’d like to think I would face these trials more as Katy (Stepping Heavenward) did, turning to Christ in all of them, than as Anna did–left only holding out a vague hope of something better at the end. Up until the last couple of chapters, this book was a terrific read, very educational as well as enjoyable. Brooks gave in to modern society’s preference for faiths other than the true one and its interest in strong female characters that can raise children without a loving husband.