Monday, July 16, 2007

The lemon meringue of plague fiction

Year of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks

Because Year of Wonders received so much attention and was so highly acclaimed by some reviewers, I approached it with the trepidation usually reserved for such “vividly imagined and strangely consoling tales” (as praised by O, The Oprah Magazine).

Let me say right off the bat that there is much in the novel that doesn’t make any historical sense and many scenes veer dangerously into utter silliness (especially the closer one comes to the end). Anyone who wants a serious account of the plague that ravaged Europe should probably stay away from this book. And yet, I must admit that I enjoyed it; at about 300 pages, I read Year of Wonders in a day and didn’t notice the hours slipping by. I don’t feel compelled to read anything else by Geraldine Brooks, but this book helped me pass an enjoyable Saturday afternoon, and that deserves a smile and nod at the very least.

Year of Wonders describes one town’s encounter with the bubonic plague. As it becomes clear that plague is beginning to pick off family and friends, those who have not yet fallen ill must decide whether to remain or flee. Fleeing is a dubious prospect at best – there is little hope that they will be accepted in another village once a plague outbreak has become known. And yet what of the decision to stay behind? For most it means almost certain death. The villagers ultimately decide to quarantine themselves to protect others from the dreaded disease. (This situation is historical fact, as the novel is based on the events which occurred in the village of Eyam during the seventeenth century.) Of course, Brooks fictionalizes things a bit -- and that's where things get a little ... hairy.

Year of Wonders strives to emulate Camus’ Plague, as those who remain behind must face their own worst fears, and in doing so must choose to act morally or not. Some steep themselves in drink, lust, and even witchcraft; others toil for the good of all, regardless of the risk to themselves; still others seek to appease the vengeance of a wrathful god.

whipeth it goode

Year of Wonders, unfortunately, does not meet the standard set by Camus in 1947, for in reading Camus one doesn't think, "Well now that's the silliest shit I've read in awhile." The reader is likely to think this about Year of Wonders, especially because the heroine is simply too modern for her time. For her part, the narrator, Anna Frith, is a heroine right out of Camus (nevermind, of course, that his philosophy would never have occurred to a woman of Anna's standing in the seventeenth century). Her family is one of the first victims of the plague, and despite having lost everything, she does not give in to despair.

Anna is the maid for the town’s reverend, Michael Mompellion, and even though she is a servant Mrs. Mompellion befriends her and even teaches her to read. Anna is quite ahead of her time (almost absurdly so), for she is intelligent, frowns upon both the superstitious and superreligious, and is capable of doing and learning much that a peasant woman would not have been (like Latin, midwifing, herbology, mining, horse taming and more ... all in less than a year).

Some reviewers have seen Anna’s personality as the central flaw of the book; it’s as though Anna is a twenty-first-century woman forced to endure a seventeenth-century plague outbreak. I, however, didn’t really notice this problem during my reading. I was more discouraged by the end of the novel, when (and I won’t spoil anything here) there are a few scenes of passionate sex that really didn’t fit either the tone or the events of the preceding 280 pages.

The novel contains other flaws, most of them involving what seems to be a poor understanding of the seventeenth-century mindset. I'm not trashing Year of Wonders, however, since it was a quick, interesting read that helped pass a hot Saturday, but it is not something that I’d read a second time, nor am I likely to seek more by this author.

In a nutshell: Light and fluffy, Year of Wonders is the lemon meringue of plague fiction. If you want something of more solid substance, stick with Camus.

Bibliolatry Scale: 3 out of 6 stars

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't you think the idea that 17th century peasant women were all stupid, ignorant and superstitious is, well, a bit smug? Peasants were peasants because they were poor, not because they were stupid. They were ignorant because they were uneducated, not because they lacked the ability to learn. You sound like a sneering aristocrat when you stereotype the poor in such a way, and you sound like a self-satisfied modernite when you stereotype people of the past in such a way. Humans are humans in every age; nothing changes that much. There have been atheists and agnostics and pragmatists in every time, there have been black sheep and those who didn't yield to the prevailing mindset, just as there are now. Don't be such a snob in your assumptions about the realism of this character; there's no such thing as a typical 17th-century English peasant personality or mindset, any more than there is such a thing as a typical black, gay or Muslim personality or mindset (or any other tiresome stereotypes).