Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Year of Wonders

I think I first read about this book in a writer's magazine. The brief author interview, provided there, really whet my appetite. Geraldine Brooks wrote this novel while living in a fairly isolated location, similar to the setting of her novel. It made her really contemplate what it would be like, in such an isolated location, to quarantine the entire town as the village of Eyam did during a year of intense plague contagion.

For a first novel, Geraldine Brooks (a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal) did a fabulous job. Based on actual events, Year of Wonders, tells the story of a small village in rural England during the year of 1666. The widowed housewife Anna Frith is in the forefront of the story when a new lodger brings hopes for the future, destroyed prematurely by the infectious "seeds" of the plague. As numerous individuals begin to die off, the town makes the uncomfortable decision to voluntarily quarantine themselves until the contagion is vanquished.

Geraldine Brooks' writing is vivid and fluid. I was immediately swept into the story line and thoroughly enjoyed the voice of narrator Anna. As she reels from her own losses, she fights for survival and sense from the madness going on around her. The story gives rise to all kinds of contemplation of human belief systems, the purpose and value of tragedy, and the power of knowledge. While the death toll mounts, various townspeople turn to violence, extortion, witchcraft and self-flagellation in their efforts to turn the tragic events to their own advantage.

My only complaint would be that the author, after offering up numerous religious reactions to difficulty and trial, settles upon a totally secular view. She pronounces (through the main character) the plague to be merely a thing of nature, like a rock that sticks up from the ground and sometimes causes you to stumble.

I know that generally you want a character to grow and change through the course of a novel. However, I found that I really didn't like the way Anna (and the minister of the town) changed. In fact, it even seemed a bit too much to believe towards the end of the book.

Even so, I really did enjoy the novel and it is still resonating in my mind. In fact, not long after finishing the novel, my mother sent me an e-mail containing a hauntingly beautiful Irish blessing pronounced by Roma Downey (what a fabulous narrator's voice she has!). I immediately thought of Year of Wonders and considered the blessing to be a fit answer for the final conclusion drawn at the end of the novel.

I believe that suffering and difficulty always holds a purpose. I believe that there is more to this universe than meets the eye. We have such a limited view of what is really going on. Moreover, like the blessing intones, I want to believe that my life is "an important part of God's plan." In my opinion, to do otherwise is to rip from life its meaning and purpose.

Here are the words of that Irish blessing:

"May the blessing of light be upon you,
light on the outside and light on the inside.
With God's sunlight shining on you,
may your heart glow with warmth like a turf fire
that welcomes friends and strangers alike.
May the light of the Lord shine from your eyes
like a candle in the window, welcoming the weary traveler.
May the blessing of God's soft rain be on you,
falling gently on your head,
refreshing your soul with the sweetness
of little flowers newly blooming.
May the strength of the winds of Heaven bless you,
carrying the rain to wash your spirit clean,
sparkling after, in the sunlight.
May the blessing of God's earth be on you
and as you walk the roads,
may you always have a kind word for those you meet.
May you understand the strength and power of God
in a thunderstorm in winter,
the quiet beauty of creation
and the calm of a summer sunset.
And may you come to realize that
insignificant as you may seem in this great universe,
you are an important part of God's plan.
May He watch over you and keep you safe from harm."

And, upon completing Year of Wonders, I would add:

But if harm should o'ertake you and His watchful eye seem less than kind,
May you hold His hand in the dark and remain open to His meaning and purpose.

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