Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a brilliant novel, at first so heart-wrenching and vivid in its account of a 17th-century bubonic-plague village in England, that it is tempting to close it and return to the mindless comfort of a trashy movie on Netflix. Who needs to add those plague images to the ones on our nightly news?
I persevered, and I am glad of it. Historical fiction in Brooks’ hands is as surprising and deep as the novels of Hilary Mantel, as evocative as Philippa Gregory’s reconstructing of the Tudor era, as well-plotted as the Matthew Shardlake mysteries (also in Tudor times) by C.J. Sansom. Year of Wonders is further enriched by Brooks’ years as a journalist, during which she saw bravery and horror up close, and trained her eye to save the small details that make a person come alive on the page.
In the end, it is surprisingly comforting to realize what others have managed to survive, and Brooks is impressive in her ability to firmly avoid stock characters and predictable turns of plot. If the book has a fault, it is that it ends too soon. I felt bereft to arrive there; I wanted more time alongside the narrator.