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The story of Eyam Village in Derbyshire is one that has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it in junior school, all too many years ago. In 1665, the small village suffered an outbreak of the plague. Rather than risk spreading the fatal disease to the surrounding villages and county, the villagers elected to shut themselves off from the world to contain the disease until it was gone. Their act of self-sacrifice led to the deaths of over two thirds of the villagers, but ensured the surrounding countryside remained disease-free. Year of Wonders is based on these events and charts the story of one (fictional) villager during those 12 months of horror and turmoil.
Year of Wonders did not get off to a great start when I discovered that author Geraldine Brooks had taken actual people from the Eyam story, but then changed their names. In the afterword, she justifies this by saying that she has changed names where she has made up significant background information about them, but this was a thoroughly unconvincing excuse as far as I was concerned. After all, it's not like there's going to be anyone who might sue her for defamation of character!
First of all, this is a historical novel. By very definition, if you are using real life characters, then you have to invent certain things about them -particularly for a novel set in the 1600s. Prior to 1665, there is very little information about most of the villagers of Eyam, so an author is free to use a bit of poetic licence. The secret lies not in whether you make stuff up, but how well you blur the line between fact and fiction so that the bits you make you make up correspond with the known facts and still make for a convincing character.
Secondly, Brooks does not exactly exhaust her imagination when coming up with new names for her semi-fictional, semi-historical characters. The real life Rector of Eyam, William Mompesson becomes "Michael Mompellion"; local landowning family the Bradshaws become the "Bradfords". If you're going to use names which are that close to the real names, why not just use the real names for goodness' sake? This is what most historical fiction writers do for one very good reason: it works.
Sadly, things don't really get much better and Year of Wonders proved to be a deeply frustrating read. The thing I found most disappointing was that it was a curiously turgid and emotionless affair. The story of Eyam is one packed with drama and emotion; even wandering around the village reading the plaques on various buildings can be deeply moving experience. Brooks captures none of this. Her tone is brisk, business-like and totally devoid of any real feeling. Her characters feel lifeless and artificial and this gives the whole book a stilted tone. Perhaps Brooks' background as a journalist means that her writing style is better suited to presenting "facts", rather than trying to capture in writing more intangible things such as hope, fear and despair. Whatever the reason, Brooks manages to turn a tragic tale into a pedestrian presentation of information.
It's hard to see how you could possibly go wrong, since almost every aspect of human nature is to be found in the Eyam story: examples of small scale heroism and self-sacrifice contrasting with acts of extreme selfishness; stories of mass tragedy mingled with minor glimmers of hope. It is full of touching, small vignettes which represent both the best and worst of humanity and should be a gift to anyone with even a modicum of writing talent. Yet somehow, Brooks blows it; turning these fascinating, tragic real life people into simple factotums that fail to engage.
Worse still, for the sake of narrative coherence, Brooks sometimes ignores or replaces real-life events with ones that she has made up and which are usually far less interesting or emotional than the documented events. Quite why an author would want to make up bland sub-plots when the real story is virtually written for you is beyond me, but that's what Brooks seems intent on doing.
Despite its subtitle ("A Novel of the Plague"), Year of Wonders is not really about the plague or the Eyam story at all. Rather, it's about a young woman's journey of self-discovery that coincidentally happens to set in Eyam in the mid-1660s. As such, there is little to distinguish it from other "journey of discovery novels" and it's all fairly trite and predictable stuff. Just occasionally, it threatens to be interesting could be by focusing on the more interesting elements of the real Eyam story, but these moments are few and far between.
Brooks' use of language is as frustrating as her narrative ability. On one level, she tries to show how clever she is by inserting lots of 17th century words into the text in place of their 21st century counterparts (particularly when using insults). This can be effective and help establish an air of authenticity and a real sense of time. Unfortunately, some of the other language is far too modern and anachronistic and the two styles clash horribly. It gives the book a very disjointed feel and this clumsy use of language (curious for someone who is a wordsmith by profession) further destroys any sense of atmosphere or emotion.
Perhaps I'm being unfair because I'm so familiar with the real Eyam story and was constantly trying to match the real-life events against the fictional ones presented here. Even if that's the case, there's no getting away from the fact that the real life events are far more touching and interesting than anything that Brooks is capable of making up. Even when she presents episodes which are based around known facts or existing stories, she lacks the skill to present them in a way that stirs the emotion.
Of course, there's an old showbiz saying: "it's not how you start, it's how you finish" and just to show that the previous couple of hundred pages of turgid prose were no fluke, Brooks ends with an epilogue so preposterous, so ludicrous and so out of keeping with the rest of the book that you almost have to laugh. It's either that or breakdown in tears that anyone could make such a mess of telling such a simple, powerful story.
Without doubt, there is an emotionally powerful novel to be written about Eyam. This is not it.
Year of Wonders
Harper Perennial, 2008
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
I have been interested in the Plague since I learnt about the events of 1665 and 1666 in school, all those years ago. My fascination continues now and I will often buy a book if it has a Plague theme. I read a review of this book over on Ciao and it sounded just my kind of novel, so I bought a copy from Ebay.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is set in Eyam, a village in Derbyshire, in 1666. When the villagers realise the Plague has hit their little community, they decide to completely isolate themselves from everyone else, so remain cut off from their neighbouring villages until the Plague is over. This incredible act of bravery stopped the Plague from spreading and decimating other parts of the country.
The novel is based on events that actually occurred at Eyam. The author explains her inspiration in the Afterword, detailing how she visited the village in 1990 and learnt about their plight. It is also interesting reading the parts of her novel that were based on anecdotes and real people and the parts that were completely fabricated. While not purporting to be an historical account, it does give you a sense of what happened and makes you understand the villagers much more clearly.
The narrator of the novel is Anna Frith, widowed mum of two young boys. We see village life through her eyes, before, during and after the Plague. She is a worthy heroine and feels very real, as all her qualities, emotions, virtues and faults are laid out before us.
Anna is definitely someone to admire, as she is brave, determined and strong, but never comes across as pious or cold. I did find myself picturing her as being older than eighteen, but this might be because our modern-day society would not usually expect eighteen-year-olds to be in her situation - widowed, with two children, running a farm and doing hard physical work every day.
The whole village is brought to life in the novel, with a clear picture being painted from the great descriptive prose. I could easily visualise the layout of Eyam and felt I knew most of its inhabitants too. The characters are beautifully etched and we soon come to love or hate each one.
Along with Anna, the two main characters are the village rector Michael Mompellion and his wife Elinor. Anna helps Elinor out and they begin a friendship which was unusual at the time between women in their position, Anna being of a much lower social standing than Elinor.
It is interesting comparing the two women and their strengths and weaknesses. It seems natural that they are friends, so the restraints imposed upon their relationship seem rather strange to modern readers. By the end of the novel, Anna has matured and gained in confidence and it is easy to chart her progress throughout the novel.
Michael Mompellion is the most complex character in the novel. While Elinor is sweet, kind and gentle, yet in some ways weak, Michael is robust, strong, determined and powerful. But over the course of the novel, we see many sides to his personality, so our opinion tends to change slightly as we read on.
It is fascinating to see how the Plague changes village life. As well as the obvious things like the deaths themselves and the ensuing grief, we discover how new families and relationships are made as old ones fall apart; how the living learn the trades of those who have died; how the look and feel of the village itself alter.
Besides the practical consequences, the Plague also leads people to question their beliefs. People begin to doubt their faith in God and some look for other ways of trying to save themselves. Morality diminishes, justice changes and a new way of living and thinking comes to pass.
I found this aspect of the novel fascinating, as it throws up as many questions as it answers. How would we have coped back then? How has society improved since that time? In some ways, it was better living in the 1600s, but in many ways, it was so much harder. The novel also leads you to wonder how we would cope with a Plague these days - a threat which became more real, following the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001. (9/11 brought about the threat of using viruses as a weapon of terror, including the plague.)
The language of the novel takes a while to get used to, as it is written to give an authentic feel of the 1600s. It rather added to the beauty of the novel though and I don't think it would have been so good without it, even if I didn't understand some of the old words used. It gave the story an added charm.
Anna's own story is, of course, at the heart of the novel and I was very satisfied by the ending and the update given in the Epilogue. This really made me feel that the whole tale had been told and I was happy to know the outcome.
Overall, it is a beautiful and haunting read. From its stunning cover to the thought-provoking Afterword, this is a novel I would recommend to everyone. It is a powerful read with all emotions being dealt their fair share. There are some sex scenes and violence, as well as some descriptions of awful symptoms and gory deaths, but nothing is gratuitous and it all helps add to the atmosphere.
8.5 out of 10
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Cover price £6.99 paperback