Monday, February 15, 2016

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

Extremely well-written book by the Pulitzer-prize winning Brooks. Very evocative and very clear, you will get a you-are-there feel while reading it.

Unlike other books that gave me the same feeling, I also got an oddly detached feeling while reading this, even though I was immersed in it and felt like I was there.

The only explanation I had for this--which I felt while reading--is that the book was oddly too well-written, if that's possible. I think it is, because I've felt like that before, while reading James Joyce, who, to be fair, intentionally writes his books with himself in mind. I don't think Brooks purposely does that here, but her book was still so sparsely well-written that it drew attention to itself and lightly loosened my otherwise solid suspension-of-disbelief while reading it. I can only say that this must be a good problem to have. It will not shock you out of the book, and despite the good writing, it'll still land a punch or too, and it covers some grotesque scenes without losing the grossness of it all, as glossed writing sometimes does.

The plot is pretty simple, though a lot happens. In fact, an awful lot happens in this, a book about a small town that quarantines itself during the last Great Plague in England, in 1666. I'd read that plague towns not only quarantined themselves as a town, but as individual dwellings in that town, as well. In other words, not only could people not go in and out of the town, but they couldn't go in and out of individual homes, either. I'd read that homes were shut up--with the sick and not sick of that family together, so that the sick would definitely die, and the well would almost definitely get sick. And if everyone survived the plague, they still might starve--and that guards would be posted outside. Sometimes these people would hang a noose towards an unwary guard and hang him so they could escape. Only certain physicians and healers, and the town carters and gravediggers, and maybe the town's clergy, could still walk around and go in and out of infected homes.

Well, that doesn't happen here at all. The main character is in THE infected home--the one where the London cloth merchant resided, thereby bringing the Plague to Eyam (according to tradition). Then her children die of it as well, so she is definitely in an infected house. Nothing is ever mentioned in the book about homes themselves being quarantined--just that people would naturally stay away from them. That doesn't happen with the narrator's home, either, though she is definitely the town healer after the town's real healers get killed by the townspeople, who feared they were witches. Of course.

I make this sound much more questionable here then the book ever is. Geraldine Brooks, an award-winning reporter and world traveller, who wrote some very important pieces from some very harrowing places, certainly does her research for this historical fiction novel, which is why you'll feel like you're there. And certainly she cannot be blamed for maybe taking a creative license about the home quarantines--after all, how much can happen in a story if the main narrator can't see anything or go anywhere? I'm keeping that in mind, as Eyam plays a part in one of my WIPs, too.

Anyway, this is a deservedly popular novel by an author who I haven't heard too much of since, for some reason. I have March, which I'll read soon, by her, and reading this book has made me want to read Anita Diamant's Last Days of Dogtown again, and maybe start her Red Tent, too. So if historical fiction is your bag, or if you like good writing with believable female narrators, or if the Plague or the time interests you, you should read this book, as a great many have.

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