Thursday, April 08, 2010

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I think there is something strangely beautiful about The Plague. Not what it does to the human body or psyche, but the ease at which nature was (and is) capable of balancing human populations with a wave of bacteria riding Valkyrie-like on the backs of fleas. Strangely enough, people were better off each time the sickness swept through Europe—there was more land, more jobs and more opportunity with less competition. It’s hard to think of the benefits, though, when you’re reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

Brooks’s novel depicts the fictional counterpart to Eyam, a real plague-wracked 17th century English village, which quarantined itself to save its neighbors from the sickness. As the inhabitants begin to die horrifically, people begin to fall back on superstition and barbarity. All this is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young widow who mingles with both people of exalted status and the people of the dirt to show the reader just how fear has affected every strata of society. She leads us through a nightmare world where saviors are brought low and healers are destroyed by the ones they sought to cure.

Since college, I have read this book three or four times. Despite my intimate knowledge of the novel, I find myself sucking in breath as the ending draws closer, releasing it only after I have shut the final page. It is a gripping, well-told historical fiction book that is a far sight better than some of the popular period pieces these days, which are more bodice-rippers than anything. The writing is fabulous, but I think it’s the very elemental story that keeps the air locked in my chest. After all, we may have defeated The Plague, but it only takes one antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria to slam the human race back to the Stone Ages. With the ease of travel these days, the ability to voluntarily quarantine ourselves to save others is strikingly diminished—if not defeated all together. Would we have the courage of the real-life inhabitants of Eyam or the fictional ones in Brooks’s novel? I don’t know, but I’m sure that we’ll have a chance to test our mettle some time in the near future.

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