Completed: Year of Wonders

Book Cover: Year of Wonders by Geraldine BrooksYear of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

(Opening paragraph.)

OK, I have to confess: I’ve been avoiding writing this post. No excuses of busyness (although I’ve spent far more time watching college (American) football this fall than I’d anticipated–Kent’s been winning!!) or reading slowness. I’ve simply kept putting it off.

It is of course, much harder to write about a book I don’t have strong emotions towards.  I don’t love it, don’t hate it, didn’t find it an excellent book, didn’t find it a terrible book. It’s just a book I enjoyed reading while I was reading it but will probably forget soon (save for this post).

I mentioned previously a vague feeling of dissatisfaction while starting this, and as I read the source became more clear to me: my expectations were too high. I’d heard such good things about Brooks’s novels, especially her Pulitzer winning March, that I think in some ways I was expecting (unconsciously) the same difficult level of other books I’ve read this year, most of which made me work as a reader. This one did not, which threw me a bit off balance mentally. This isn’t meant as a reflection on Year of Wonders so much as my over-expectations. And to be fair, this is Brooks’s first novel–perhaps March is exactly what I’d been expecting here.

The novel is an historical tale, set during the plague year of 1666 in a small village in England. It is based on a real story of a village that shut itself off from the outside world in a noble effort to confine the plague to their borders. It is in many ways a fascinating story–the struggles of the villagers through daily life with the pall of death constantly surrounding them, struggles both of survival and to remain human. Although is is mostly likely classified as historical fiction, I would make an argument that it is more a thriller–a thriller in which the villain is not human but microscopic infection, although at times the greatest monsters were those left to mourn. I think there is much potential in a story like this for a real in-depth character study of how such tragedy changes those left behind. But here it seemed more surface, and I almost felt there was too much plot, the pacing was too fast. (Which I find incredible that I am saying as I like plot.) There is one character whose changing response to the outbreak leans to what I am looking for, but in some ways I think it comes too late, is looked at too lightly.

This is not to say there aren’t some things I really liked in Year of Wonders. Brooks has an absolute knack, perhaps it is her journalistic background, for describing a setting so that I am there, even in a landscape I have never seen either in real life or in pictures. It is not just the visual image, but the whole atmosphere–I am there because I smell it and feel it and hear it. The story, plot-heavy as it is, is compelling. The reader knows certain outcomes, who lives and dies, from the beginning, but Brooks makes the stakes are such that this knowledge doesn’t impair the reading. Indeed, it could be evidence for the argument that for a well-written book there is no such thing as a spoiler.

My one other issue with this book I think is more personal, that is, I suppose many readers might disagree. I didn’t care for the ending. Without giving anything specific away, I thought it was too pat, too neat. This is a story from real life, although the characters are invented, and in real life things aren’t neat. Especially after such a dire situation. It just didn’t feel real, didn’t feel plausible, and although there are moments of implausibility earlier (I thought the narrator’s eloquence a bit of a stretch given her lack of education), this is the one that stands out. I imagine that many readers would rather have everything tied up just so–it feels more complete, there’s a more definitive end–but in this particular instance I’d rather leave it more open-ended. Perhaps Brooks did so originally and her editor disagreed. Perhaps not. I will say though, she did lead towards the ending very nicely, there was no “where the heck did that come from?” about it.

Would I read more of Brooks’s novels? Perhaps. March intrigues me, as does Caleb’s Crossing. Would I recommend Year of Wonders? If you are a fan of plot-driven historical fiction or are particularly interested in the story of Eyam, England, yes. If you prefer more gritty realism or characterization over plot in your books, it’s probably not for you.

Additional thought: Earlier today, I saw THIS article from the Guardian regarding open-ended novels which relates to my feelings here. Check it out for a pro-ambiguity argument.

2 thoughts on “Completed: Year of Wonders”

  1. Brooks is one of those writers I know by name but don’t really know much about otherwise, so it was nice to see your reflections about this book of hers even if you didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. I think I can understand your ambivalence, though: I love the idea of the microscopic infection as the villain of the story, but I hate pat endings.

    1. Pat endings have there place, but I didn’t think this was one. At least, not for me! I have a feeling more readers than not prefer nice tidy endings, so this may be the more “commercial” way to go, but in a story that is so tied to reality (which couldn’t be said for most thriller-type novels) it seems to me the more realistic open-ending finish would be more appropriate.

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