Derbyshire, 1665. Anna Frith is a young widow in the lead-mining village of Eyam. Her lodger, an apprentice tailor, receives a shipment of cloth and with it, the plague. The disease spreads fast and the village, led by a charismatic and determined preacher, decides to isolate itself in order to prevent the infection’s spread to their neighbours. Anna proves to be unaffected by the outbreak, and does what she can to aid others as they fall victim to not just illness, but religious mania, persecution, madness, allegations of witchcraft and other crises.
Year of Wonders focuses, not on the plague itself, but on its usefulness as an extended metaphor by which to scrutinise its main players. This is a world where many are bound by convention and by oppressive moral frameworks, and who react under pressure and opportunity in a range of ways, most (but not all of them) ultimately destructive. Though some parts are perhaps necessarily episodic, there’s a strong through-line as we follow Anna through her various travails, including several developing relationships exploring her passions, infatuations and loves.
Much of the writing convinces in its detail and in the well-judged use of dialect and period slang. There’s confusion at one point over dates, bit that aside, this is an accomplished, detailed and affecting novel. A brief but useful afterword gives some guidance on the novel’s genesis and some of the source material.
Brooks, Geraldine. 2002. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (London: Fourth Estate), 310 pages, 978-1841154589