The title of Geraldine Brooks' first novel, "Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague," appears contradictory. But it's also intriguing and hopeful: A book about something as devastating as the bubonic plague that somehow includes "wonders" holds out the promise of miracles -- or of survival at the least.
That promise is only partly fulfilled, for Brooks, a former war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, remains devoted to capturing both the ugly essence of the plague and the less seemly sides of human nature that disease brings out. "Year of Wonders" loosely follows the true story of Eyam, Derbyshire, an English village struck by the plague in 1666. The villagers heroically quarantined themselves so as not to spread the notoriously vicious scourge, a decision that meant increasing the risk of their own infection and death.
"Year of Wonders" begins with the bright but uneducated 18-year-old narrator, Anna, a widow, feeling the pangs of new love for her lodger, a tailor who dazzles the modest village with his fancy cloth and beautiful designs. He soon falls mysteriously ill and dies, presumably infected by disease-ridden cloth from London. Anna loses both of her children to the plague early on, but she becomes the town's strength and reason, as well as a servant to the pastor, Michael Mompellion and his beautiful wife, Elinor. It is the strangely compelled Mompellion, the resident interpreter of God's will, who urges the town to cut itself off for the good of the outlying countryside.
The novel is filled with moments of compassion and sadness, as when Anna comes to terms with the lingering presence of the dead: "Sometimes, if I walked the main street of the village in the evening, I felt the press of their ghosts. I realized then that I had to step small and carry myself all hunched, keeping my arms at my sides and my elbows tucked, as if to leave room for them." Yet with the same steady hand Brooks uses to paint the beauty of the English countryside, she details the gruesome minutiae of the disease. No sooner do her descriptions of a mother's love for her child or a housewife's simple, daily chores lull and mesmerize, than Brooks pans the landscape, bestowing the same respectful observation on a putrid plague boil. Mothers fall asleep sweetly hugging their dying babies, only to find the infants' liquified bowels soaking the sheets the next morning.
In the face of this devastation, Anna rejects the villagers' explanations for the sufferings visited upon them: God's will, a Cross to bear, a witch's curse, the Devil's work. Brooks writes, "Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe." It's Anna's own native intelligence, and her lack of the prejudices and imperatives of a Medieval education, that allow her to accept that the village has experienced something beyond human comprehension. In a way, it's as if Anna's capacity for curiosity and reflection -- this sense of wonder that so infuses Brooks' perspective -- ensures her very survival.