Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks

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Five words from the blurb: infected, Plague, village, death, survive

Eyam is a small village in rural Derbyshire. In 1665 the village tailor received a parcel of cloth from London. Unknown to him, fleas harbouring the deadly plague were contained in the package and within a week he was dead. It wasn’t long before other members of the village were struck down and the community made the brave decision to isolate themselves in order to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the country. Only 83 of the village’s 350 inhabitants survived. Year of Wonders is a fictional account of what happened during the 14 months that the village was affected by the plague. The exact names and family groups may have been changed, but the fear and grief contained within the pages felt very real to me.

Eyam Village. Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface, Flickr

This is an intense read; the writing was so powerful that at times I could hardly bear to read on, but I was completely gripped and unable to tear myself away from the tragedy that was unfolding.

He died clutching the bed sheet. Gently, I untangled each hand, straightening his long, limp fingers. They were beautiful hands, save for the one callused place toughened by a lifetime of needle pricks. Remembering the deft way they’d moved in the fire glow, the tears spilled from my eyes. I told myself I was crying for the waste of it; that those fingers that had acquired so much skill would never fashion another lovely thing. In truth, I think I was crying for a different kind of waste; wondering why I had waited until so near this death to feel the touch of those hands. 

This is historical fiction at its very best. I felt as though I knew the people and understood their motivations.

My only problem with this book was the epilogue – I felt it tied everything up too cleanly and I would have preferred the more ambiguous ending that could have been achieved without its presence. This a only a very minor quibble though – the rest of the book was stunning.

This book isn’t for everyone. I know that many will find the contents too distressing, but if you like books that take you on an emotional journey then this is for you.

Highly recommended.

Three words to describe the reading experience: intense, moving, informative.

Many years ago I visited the village of Eyam and I remember reading the signs which detailed the deaths that had occurred in each of the houses. It is only after reading this book that I appreciate the full scale of what happened in that community. The lists are a tragic insight into the way every family in the village was affected. Here is an example of one of the signs – many more can be found on Bowbelle51’s Eyam Flickr set.

Plague House Sign. Photo Credit: Bowbelle51, Flickr

 

For more information about the plague in the village of Eyam see the Eyam Plague Village website.

This is the first book written by Geraldine Brooks that I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last!

Are all her books as intense as this one?

Which is your favourite?


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73 Comments

  1. Verity says:

    I visited Eyam as a child and was fascinated by its history and so also loved reading this. For me I think it was this that made the book so good; somehow I have never really succeeded in getting into any of her others.

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, Oh no! I was looking forward to a whole back catalogue of amazing books. I really hope that I have a better experience with her others than you did.

  2. TERESA says:

    I loved, loved this when I read it several years ago and would love to visit Eyam. She wrote March, a novel about the elusive Mr March, Daddy of the Little Women (L M Alcott) and it won the Pulitzer in 2006 but did very little for me… I did enjoy People of the Book though and have also read her non-fiction Nine Parts of Desire, which gave fascinating insight into the world of Islamic women. Her latest novel will be out here in April, Caleb’s Crossing and it is top of my wishlist!

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, I own all of the books you mention (apart from her new one). I am pleased that my habit of collecting books by authors I think I’ll like has paid off on this occasion. :-)

      I didn’t realise that she had a new book out in April, but I think I’ll concentrate on the ones I own already. I’m especially looking forward to Nine Parts of Desire.

  3. Sandy says:

    I’m not sure what it says about me that I like plague books, and especially ones that are based on a true story. It is like an act of God that cannot be fought, you just have to see if you are one of the lucky ones or not. It must have been terrifying, and very brave of these townsfolks to make that decision. I have to read this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I don’t think I’ve read any plague books before, but I can see how I will be drawn to them now. We can be weird in our love of the plague together ;-)

  4. Laura says:

    Oooh, I have this on my shelves … your review has moved it up in my queue! I read Brooks’ March and it’s nowhere near as intense. In fact I’m not sure you’d like it … could be too slow-moving.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I was worried that might be the case. March isn’t calling to me, but I’ll give it a try at some point and hope I enjoy it more than I think I will..

  5. vivienne says:

    I loved this book, I found it so heartwrenching. Reading the plaque really puts the plague into perspective though. Losing 13 members of your family in one go, must have been awful.

    I got a non fiction book by Geraldine Brooks for Christmas called Foreign Correspondence, which looks at her attempts to trace her pen pals from childhood. I haven’t read it yet, but I am relly looking forward to it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Vivienne, It is such a sad book. I can’t imagine losing that many members of my family. In many ways it must be hardest for those left behind to cope on their own. :-(

      I haven’t heard of Foreign Correspondence. I hope that you enjoy reading it and I look forward to seeing your review.

  6. Beth F says:

    I’ve had this on my list forever and forever. I’m hoping I’ll like it as much as you did.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, It had been on my shelf for years too. It is nice to discover these gems that we already own :-)

  7. I loved this book. Geraldine Brooks rocks. I’ve read all three of her novels. Year of Wonders was my favorite, but I thought they were all great. March was probably my least favorite, though I think that’s because it differed so much from my expectations–I thought the tone would be similar to Little Women, but it was much more harsh and intense.

    Since you appreciated Year of Wonders, I think you’ll like March and People of the Book too. I’m curious to see which one you’ll like best!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathy, Great news! I’m especially drawn to People of the Book. I hope that I love them all as much as you did.

  8. Helen says:

    I read Year of Wonders so long ago that all I remember is that I really enjoyed it. Whenever I read reviews they always say they don’t like the ending/epilogue. I really should go back and re-read that part!

    1. Jackie says:

      Helen, I haven’t read any other reviews for this one yet. I’ll be keeping an eye out for mentions of the epilogue from now on though. I hope your re-reading. :-)

  9. Amy says:

    I am mixed on Brooks’ works having loved one book by her that I read and really disliking a second. This one does sound fantastic though so I think I will have to give her another chance!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, It is sounding as though she is the sort of talented author who can write in several different styles. It is good to know that it worth persevering with her books if it turns out I don’t enjoy the next one.

  10. I don’t know if other people have this experience, but sometimes I see someone write about a book and think “Hey, I wanted to read that book but forgot about it completely!” This happened to me here. Thanks for the review/reminder.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Reading Ape, I have that experience quite a lot :-) I’m pleased I was able to remind you about this wonderful book and I hope you enjoy it.

  11. As Helen said above, the ending/epilogue of this book seems to be widely disliked (I include myself in the disliking cadre.) This was too bad, as I really was gripped by the rest of the book.

    I’ve read People of the Book and I thought it was pretty good. Her handle on historical detail is really impressive.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christy, I was very impressed by the amount of research in this book. It is one of those few novels that make history come alive. Just a shame about that epilogue :-(

  12. Alex says:

    I’ve read this one some years ago and also really liked it. Will pick up People of the Book (also by Brooks) soon, but have heard it’s not as good. Have you read it?

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I haven’t read People of the Book, but I do own a copy. Maybe I’ll get to it later in the year.

  13. Steph says:

    Wow, this sounds intense, but in a wonderful way. I’ve not read anything by Brooks but you definitely make me want to, even though I don’t generally go in for historical fiction.

    I completely agree with you about ambiguous endings, by the way. Lately I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with books that tie everything up into a neat little bow at the end… I like the freedom that ambiguous endings leave for the reader, as though the characters and the story can continue on even after the book itself is done.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, If this can’t convert you to historical fiction then nothing will :-)

      The problem with endings is that they have to find that perfect balance between actually coming to some sort of ending and letting the characters live on in our heads. I like books that leave me thinking long after the last page has been turned, but this one frustrated me by explaining too much :-( I recommend putting the book down before the epilogue – that way you’ll have the perfect book!

  14. Jeanne says:

    I agree with everyone who has said that this novel is her best. I liked the epilogue, though. I’m always an absolute glutton to find out what else happened. (This is why I stay off the fanfic sites…)

    1. Jackie says:

      SPOILERS!!
      Jeanne, I thought the epilogue was a bit weird. I didn’t mind finding out about the children, but it felt wrong for her to leave England. Not sure why, but it I thought it went into far too much detail about what happened to her. It didn’t feel like the same story and so I didn’t connect with it at all. It is interesting to know that you liked it though. Amazing how different we all are :-)

  15. I loved this book, too. I also REALLY liked “March” even though it was completely different from “Year of Wonders”. Both intense & realistic though.
    Thanks for your great reviews; I’ve read several excellent books upon your recommendations.

    1. Jackie says:

      Debbie, Thank you for the kind words. It is really nice to know that I’m helping people to find great reads :-)

  16. diana mack says:

    loved this book and don’t know why i haven’t sought out her other books…
    when i saw an exhibit on the titanic and they showed the lists of all who died..that’s when it really hit home…the sign you showed did the same

    1. Jackie says:

      diana, It is strange which things really hit home. There is a list of all the people killed by the plague in this village, but it did nothing for me. It was only when the list was divided into family groups and showed how each family was affected that I felt the significance of the event. Personalising it has a real affect on me.

  17. Jessica says:

    This is the second review of this I have read but for some reason I thought it was based in France LOL (doh)

    I’ve added ths to my TBR list

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, LOL! Now you mention it the cover does have a French feel. It is weird how we build up these impressions!!

  18. I loved this book too, Jackie. I have been to Eyam many times and love it there. I would have given it 5 starts until I got the end and then had to drop a star as I thought the ending didn’t even feel like I was reading the same book; it didn’t seem to fit and I didn’t like it.

    I have also read one of her others (The Book of People? – something like that anyway) which I also really enjoyed – another great story.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I agree. It felt like the last chapter was written by a totally different author – very strange experience.

  19. Kay says:

    Geraldine Brooks is the only author that my book club has read 3 times. We loved YEAR OF WONDERS, well, some people didn’t like the ending. I was OK with it. We read PEOPLE OF THE BOOK (which I loved excessively) and MARCH (which was tough for me because I love LITTLE WOMEN). I’m hopeful that Ms. Brooks will grace us with more stories soon. :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Kay, It looks as though she has another book out this year – I hope you book group enjoy it as much as all the others. :-)

  20. Ifi says:

    I just LOVE books that “takes one on an emotional journey” as you put it. I seem to like the dark distressing stuff that stays with one. Saramagos “Blindness” came to mind when i read your review. Gosh, yet another one for the list. But I’ve decided that I need to slow down buying from Amazon for a while and check out my second hand bookshop till I get through what I already have. This gets expensive quickly. Thanks for another inspiring review and the clever link to Eyam.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Blindness is my second favourite book of all time (after A Fine Balance) I’m with you on the dark, distressing stuff. It is very weird to gain so much enjoyment from these things, but these books stay with you in a way that lighter, fluffier stuff never does. It makes me feel lucky to have all that I have and I think that is very important.

      I hope that you have success with the second hand book shops and thanks for all the kind words.

  21. I really liked this one as well. I had mixed feelings about March as I didn’t like the way she portrayed Mr. and Mrs. March at all.

    Looking forward to reading People of the Book, though.

    1. Jackie says:

      3M, I haven’t read Little Women, so perhaps I have to read that first? I am intrigued by the mixed response to the book. I look forward to trying it one day.

  22. stujallen says:

    I enjoyed this book Jackie when I read it ,also been to eyam a few times as it is only a few miles from where I live ,I love brooks way of bring history to life through one persons story ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, Eyam is a beautiful little village. I must go there again some time.

  23. JoAnn says:

    I loved this book, but really disliked the epilogue too. Haven’t read her other fiction, but can highly recommend the nonfiction Nine Part of Desire. She spoke of her new novel, Caleb’s Crossing (to be released in the US in May), at the Gifford Lecture Series in Upstate NY last year… it sounds fascinating!

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, You are so lucky to have heard her speak – I really hope I can do so at some point. Let’s hope her new one is as good as this.

  24. Mystica says:

    This sounds like a wonderful story. I will be keeping an eye out for this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mystica, I hope you find a copy and enjoy it as much as I did. :-)

  25. Another lover of this book! I also went to Eyam but I can’t remember a lot about it. It’s just a very beautiful, historical village. I really want to go again, now that Ive read the book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Me to. I think the village would have much more significance now I’ve read the book. I want to know exactly where everything is in relationship to each other. It is a beautiful part of the world too.

  26. annie says:

    This is the one Brooks that I haven’t read and I really don’t know why, because I know Eyam very well. If you ever get up that way there are some wonderful tea-shops in the area. I loved ‘March’. It taught me things about the American Civil War of which I certainly had no previous understanding. ‘The people of the Book’ was good, but not quite as good, I didn’t think. Nevertheless, I shall be waiting in line for the new one in April and perhaps I should see about getting hold of a copy of this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annie, I’m a big fan of the tea shops :-)

      I don’t know much about the American Civil War so perhaps I’ll gain more from reading March than those in the US who already learn about it all in school.

      Let’s hope her new book is as good as this one.

  27. Andi says:

    I read this book several years ago and I was struck by how fantastic Brooks’ writing is. I haven’t read any of her work since (unfortunately), though I do have March on my shelves here somewhere. Like you, I also felt that I would’ve preferred the book without the epilogue.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, Her writing is fantastic! I’d love to know how she is able to suck the reader in so quickly and I wish other authors could learn that skill ;-)

  28. I loved this book and also loved People of the Book – I hope you enjoy that one as well! I look forward to reading her other book, March, very soon.

    1. Jackie says:

      Coffee and a Book Chick, Great news! I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  29. She says:

    I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, but this sounds fantastic. I could use a little intense in my life.

    1. Jackie says:

      She, If you are after intense then I guarantee that you will not be disappointed with this one.

  30. Bookechoes says:

    This looks amazing! I’m definitely picking up this book at some point. But maybe in summer, on a happy sunny day. Reading about such sad things in winter might be too depressing for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Bookechoes, LOL! I do that sort of thing too! It is normally scary books that I save for bright, sunny days though. I get no pleasure from reading a scary book when I’m on my own in my house on a dark night. :-)

  31. FleurFisher says:

    I’m with Verity – I loved this one but I couldn’t get into her others. But a lot of people loved The People of the Book, and it could well be the sort of book that you will enjoy more than me.

    1. Jackie says:

      FleurFisher, Interesting. I’m intrigued about which side of the fence I’ll end up on now..

  32. Geraldine Brooks is an author I’ve been meaning to read for far too long, and this time in history is so fascinating to me. Historical fiction has been fantastic for me lately, and I’m adding this one to my list!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I haven’t read much historical fiction recently. I used to read it all the time and don’t know why I stopped. This book has persuaded me to try to squeeze a few more into my reading schedule.

  33. I’m a bit late to the party here — but I just loved Geraldine Brooks’ “March”!! My sister loved The People of the Book, but I couldn’t get into it.
    I got this one out of the library today – on your recommendation! :) -beth

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Wow! That was quick! I hope you’ve got some tissues handy :-)

  34. mee says:

    As you know, I just read Nine Parts of Desire and that was a fantastic read. I really look forward to Year of Wonders or People of the Book (both historical fiction and both seem to be informative). I haven’t read Little Women too so I won’t be jumping to March anytime soon. Reading the comments I just found out about the new book too. A quick google shows that Caleb’s Crossing is about the first native American to graduate from Harvard College. Interesting.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mee, I haven’t read Little Women either. I think I’ll try to read it soon so that March will be more meaningful for me. It is great to discover a new author who has written so many wonderful books :-)

  35. THis sounds fascinating. I’m always strangely intrigued by the plague…

    1. Jackie says:

      Novel Insights, Don’t worry – you aren’t alone in this strange intrigue…

  36. ifi says:

    Not that anyone cares at this point but…. I found Year Of Wonders in my used bookshop. And that´s saying a lot. I live in the south of Spain so next to none around here!! I need to pop into Gibraltar of all places!!

    Walk into the shop (which has very little order to it) and low and behold, there it was on top of a pile. Can´t wait to read it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Great news!! I love it when you have lucky finds like that – I hope that you enjoy reading it!

  37. Alyce says:

    Oh goodness yes, that ending was just odd – superb up until that point!

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