Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Year of Wonders

What makes a good historical novel? A story deeply grounded in the socio-political landscape of the time? Characters who are really of their time rather than modern people transplanted to century x? A perfectly realised world – where you really believe that this is what it was like to live at that time and in that place? Language which seems time- and place-appropriate?
All of the above?

OK, I read a lot of historical novels and I’m voting for all of the above. And I’ve just read one: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. The year in question is that between ‘leaf-fall’ of 1665 and the same season in 1666 and the ‘wonders’ come about because plague has arrived at a Peak District village. What will the villagers do?
The story is based on the real-life Derbyshire village of Eyam which cut itself off from the world so as not to spread the plague to neighbouring villages and beyond.

In her aferword, Geraldine Brooks says that surprisingly little is known of what happened in the village during their self-imposed quarantine but that a few traditional tales were handed down through the centuries and that, in writing Year of Wonders, she drew heavily on source materials like medical texts, journals, sermons and social histories:

'My library now includes tomes such as A History of Lead Mining in the Pennines, which Is not a volume I ever expected to own.'

And the result of her reading, travelling to Derbyshire (she is an Australian Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and journalist who now divides her time between Sydney, Australia and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts) and just good, old-fashioned imagining, she has created something quite outstanding. The voice she has found for Anna, her viewpoint character, feels so authentic and Anna herself comes over as so much a woman of her time, untainted by twenty-first century notions of what a woman’s life might be, that it’s hard to remember that you are not reading a first-hand account of what happened.

The vocabulary Brooks uses seems authentic without resorting to gadzookery and I liked the way she didn’t explain unfamiliar words. If you couldn’t get the gist of what they must mean from context then you could jolly well go and look them up!

Whisket, toadstone, barmester, spud (not a potato), pipkin, stemple – such English words – I loved them and the feel of earthy authenticity they gave the fabric of the book.

Nobody reading this novel will know, first-hand, what it is like to live in a village shut up with bubonic plague, a plague in which two-thirds of family and their neighbours will die around them during the year. But, having read this book, I feel as if I do know what it was like. The reaction Brooks describes – from wanton promiscuity through witch-hunting to despair and self-flagellation all seem horribly realistic. You don’t want to think that you might succumb to one of these maladaptive ways of dealing with things but, faced with a disease whose transmission, natural history and provenance was so little known as to appear to be a Biblical plague sent as a punishment for sin, who knows what expedients any of us would resort to?

Historical detail, voice and character apart, Anna’s story – over and above the story of the village and its battle with plague – is beautifully told and does not follow the course it seems set for. Anna is a victim of circumstances but her circumstances become so extraordinary that it makes for an extraordinary life.

Don’t imagine that this book will get you down because it’s about plague. It’s a book about the human spirit and the good – and bad – of which it’s capable. Read it if you love great historical fiction. And read it if you want to write good historical fiction – it’s a master-class.

As a PS to this post, you might like to know that Geraldine Brooks has a new potential bestseller out – People of the Book. It’s gone straight to the top of my ever-expanding ‘books to buy’ list...


Tim Stretton said...

This sounds wonderful, Alis. I'm reading a lot of historical fiction at the moment and this one's going on the list!

KAREN said...

I think a good historical novel encompasses all the qualities you mentioned. I'm particularly drawn to stories set in Victorian England and WW2 for some reason, but one of my favourite novels of all time, is Helen Dunmore's 'The Seige,' which so perfectly evoked the destruction, freezing conditions and starvation in Leningrad, it was hard to believe she hadn't actually lived through it!

I'll look out for 'Year of Wonders,' it sounds fascinating.

Alis said...

Hi Tim, hi Karen. As you're both historical fiction devotees, have either of you read Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt, a novel set in the English Civil War? It's brilliant in very similar ways to YoW. I heartily recommend it!

Tim Stretton said...

Now you're getting worse than David, who's recommended so much good stuff that I'm having to stack books horizontally on my bookcase...!

Books are going on my 'to read' pile faster than they are coming off - although I did very well at Brighton Borders on Friday and only came out with two books (fellow MNWer Conor Corderoy's "Dark Rain" and Christopher Priest's "The Prestige").

Oh well, I might get "The Boleyn Inheritance" finished tonight...

Leigh Russell said...

This sounds interesting - especially what you say about the language. What do you think about real historical writing - Pepys, for example? Does the authentic language get in the way, do you think? It's not fiction, of course. I'm interested in 'language' or style. I tried to write my recent book in the different 'voices' of different characters, but revised that in the end - out of respect for my readers!

Have you read the Hornblower series, by C.S. Forester?

Alis said...

Hi Leigh, how nice to have you back in the blogosphere. I know what you mean about 'voice' - I've got three different narrators in my current book and trying to remember how they all sound is sometimes hard!

Tim Stretton said...

I think "authentic" historical language makes it more difficult to "get into" the writing - but once you're inside it, it's part of what makes the experience rewarding.

The best historical novelists--Patrick O'Brian, for instance--are so adept in their use of period language that the reader isn't sure whether it's authentic or not. Of course, it's an easier course to steer for the 19th century than it is for the Tudors, say (where the default seems to be relatively modern vocabulary and syntax).