After Heliopolis, I put library holds on books by each of the remaining featured Iceland Writers Retreat authors. Then I wandered over to the fiction section of the Ballard branch to browse the shelves, and there was Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders.
At first it was slow going. The novel is set in 1666, and Brooks’ first-person narrator, Anna, uses a lot of archaic words. I wondered at her use of “ye,” which I thought was pronounced “thee,” but other words, such as “sennight” were easier to swallow and effectively evoked the period without going overboard.
I am irritated when historical characters perceive events the same way the reader would, so the unusual number of progressive, modern minds populating the book’s tiny, northern English village gave me pause in the beginning. Any modern feminist could easily identify with Anna, despite her station as a rural domestic in the 17th century. Rector Mompellion’s ministry more closely resembles a 20th century Unitarian than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The only difference between herbalist/midwife Anys Gowdie and my college Wiccan friends is the depth of Anys’ herblore.
But Anna’s attitudes are revealed to be the result of a keen mind put under tremendous pressure by circumstances that broke down societal structures that “kept her in her place.” Mompellion’s dark side is eventually revealed to be as medieval as the barber-surgeon’s techniques. (In my late-night headlong rush to finish the book, I might have missed something in Mompellion’s big reveal. It seemed quite sudden, the little bit of foreshadowing didn’t seem sufficient for such a big facet of character, and it was hard to reconcile with other aspects of his character, including his behavior post-reveal.) Anys’ fate confirms her outlier status.
A Year of Wonders shares many characteristics with The Red Tent. Both are firmly feminist stories where women of intelligence avoid the chains of traditional roles through medicine. But Year of Wonders was a much more enjoyable read. The endless childbirth stories in Red Tent are merely tiresome; the endless deaths in Year of Wonders are wearying in the way that the weight of grief is wearying. The deaths create an atmosphere that causes people to abandon societal guidelines and act on their own highest or basest impulses according to their character.
The relationships in Year of Wonder are more complex, too. Anna’s friendship with the rector’s wife conforms to the feminist “bond between women” trope, but her budding friendship with Anys fails completely; Anna and her stepmother are so dysfunctional they nearly destroy what is left of the village. Without whitewashing power dynamics or ignoring high rates of domestic abuse at all levels of village society, Brooks avoids the adversarial framework of relations between the sexes. The rector repeatedly provides the women in his life with material, intellectual, and spiritual support (dark side episodes excepted). Anna’s husband and her lodger both deal with her on a respectful and even footing.
I’ve mostly read about Plague during the 14th century, so A Year of Wonders constantly challenged my sense of history. I was also intrigued by the contrast (and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Anna leaves England at the end) between an Englishwoman’s restrictions at home and her freedoms in Persia. Although she indicates those freedoms are due to her special status as an educated outsider, that role wouldn’t have done her any good in England.
Brooks knows what oppressed women are capable of – before writing this novel she was a reporter in the Middle East, covering episodes of turmoil and cultural dissolution that matched the scale of Plague and Reconstruction.
I love that Brooks tacked such a wildly unlikely adventure on to end of a story about surviving prolonged suffering. Not only does it reinforce the idea that the most hopeless situations can lead to brighter days, but it is such an expected reversal of traditional storytelling. I expect a novel to begin with how the horrors of the Black Death led to the unlikely departure of a domestic servant on a ship bound for Persia, followed by 250 pages of her transformation in a foreign land. Instead, Brooks’ spends an entire novel tempering the steel of her character in bleak hardship in her native home, enabling her to undertake previously unimaginable adventures later almost as a matter of course.
Brooks’ gives her characters, even the minor ones, more three-dimensionality than most of us credit the people we meet in real life. Together with Anna, the reader constantly marvels at the depths of courage, fear, hatred, generosity, and strength evidenced by normal people – often finding extremes of goodness and cruelty in the same character. While the book is, as the New Yorker says, an “engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe,” it is also an exploration of how catastrophe peels layers off of ordinary folks to reveal latent complexity. Brooks repeatedly introduces us to immediately engaging characters, even as she Ensign Johnsons them pages later.
Once I got past my initial difficulties, A Year of Wonders was completely absorbing. When a round of colds broke out at home, I passed my days in quiet dread of the inevitable fact that we would soon all be dead – a thought that only revealed itself to be inane when the full light of conscious thought was focused on it, and which returned to lurk in the shadows of my mind whenever my attention was elsewhere.
Even after I finished the book, if I let my mind wander, it landed in a Plague-ridden English village. I tried to solve Anna’s problems in my dreams at night. It took a couple of days to completely return to the real world and recover from a sort of narrational jet-lag. I guess fiction really can take you on a journey.