I went through Boston recently on my to Dublin, so my old book group moved up their monthly book group meet-up by a week so I could attend. Eager to see old friends and engage in a classic after which we could tear apart, I was intrigued by what book I’d need to read that I had not anticipated reading, one of the beauties by the way of a book group.
I learn that the group had chosen The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which is the story of an English village decimated by plague in 1665. Really, I thought? Sure, I want a break from technology and business but something so sorrowful?
There were clearly parts where I cried and parts that were not good to read before going to bed, but by the time I finished the book (the last chapter of which was completed on an airplane), my overall reflection of the novel was one of courage and strength, particularly attributed to women during a hard gruesome time. Losing husbands to plague and other diseases meant that women had to do it all and remarry was not only necessarily an option, but a choice.
One such “friend” character Anys says to lead character Anna Frith, a young housemaid who works for Michael Mompellion, the village rector, “Why would I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I have my home — it is not much, I grant, yet sufficient for my shelter. But more than these, I have something very few women can claim: freedom.”
And now for one of my favorite lines from Anys: “Sometimes a woman needs a draught of nettle beer to wake her up, and sometimes she needs a dish of valerian tea to calm her down. Why cultivate a garden with only one planet in it?”
Anna on the other hand has learned to view the world as dark and light. She ponders, “The Puritans who had ministered to us here has held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking.”
Although death and suffering surround Anna, she finds strength, love, and true community in the wreckage the disease leaves. Says one description of the book: its true strength is a deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe.
And she has an interesting journey along the way in the midst of trauma and sorrow. At one point, she discovers poppies and their healing quality, healing of pain that is by losing yourself in its power.
She writes of her experience with it, “Time turned into a rope that unraveled as a languid spiral. One strand widened into a broad, swooping curve on which I could glide, drifting easily like a breeze-borne leaf. The zephry that carried me was mild and warm, even as I soared in its currents high over the White Peak, breaking through the gray clouds and into a place where the sun so dazzled that I had to close my eyes.”
Who wouldn’t want a bit of that I thought as I read her state. Of course, the substance is addictive so she must make a moral decision about whether to continue using it or to move on and Anna, being a bit of a “good wife-like character” does the right thing.
Before she gives it up entirely, she writes of yet another experience and its beautifully spun: “I poured boiling water over the remaining poppy resin (her last batch), stirring in a half cup of heather-scented honey to mask the bitterness, and carried the mug up to my bed. In my dreams that night, the mountains breathed like sleeping beasts and the wind cast a rich blue shadow. A winged horse flew me through a sky of black velvet, over shimmering deserts of golden glass, through fields of falling stars.”
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