Religion and superstition go head-to-head in Year of Wonders. After the plague hits, many villagers turn to Michael Mompellion, the rector, for understanding of why God is testing their faith. Michael spends much of the novel preaching that the villagers need to be patient and suffer through the trials, but the villagers’ faith wanes. Instead, many look elsewhere for answers. With both Anys and Mem Gowdie accused of witchcraft, some people secretly call on the ghost of Anys to provide spells and tinctures to ease their suffering. These townspeople feel that, by resorting to both Christianity and the occult, they might somehow find a way to deal with their pain.
While the villagers lose hope as more of their own begin to die, the main characters also suffer major crises of faith. Anna is curious by nature, but she does not lose sight of her faith until the end of the novel, when Michael explains how he made Elinor atone for her teenage transgressions. However, Anna's faith tends to take a back seat to her scientific, inquisitive nature. It is more important to her to figure out how to combat the plague than to sit and wait for God to intervene on the village’s behalf. As for Michael, his sermons become less impassioned as he loses hope for the village. His wife’s death is the final impetus that causes his faith to die.
These two juxtaposed forces show up numerous times in Year of Wonders. The plague causes hundreds of deaths in the village: every family is affected, regardless of what measures are taken to prevent illness. Anna also sees numerous examples of death in nature, some of which mimic her village’s confrontation with the plague. However, Brooks pairs these images with visions of new life emerging: babies born in the midst of the plague, new trees blooming in the village. Anna is reminded to focus on these small miracles and to remain hopeful about the future.
Dealing with loss and grief is a natural part of life; in the village of Eyam, the residents must learn how to deal with such sorrow on a large scale. However, each character suffers each loss in his or her own way. Anna’s grief nearly gets the better of her, but instead Elinor helps Anna to focus her attention onto the people in the town. For their part, Elinor and Michael appear to turn to each other for guidance and sustenance. Yet many of the villagers become hysterical with grief and begin throwing blame at Mem, Anys, and others who in fact aim to help. Aphra in particular responds to her losses in a desperate fashion and becomes murderous and vengeful after losing all of her family.
Whereas most of the characters in Year of Wonders turn to religion or superstition in attempts to ward off the plague, a handful of characters begin see the virtue of experimenting with apothecary. This is a tradition that is associated with old maids such as Mem Gowdie, who has been the primary midwife and physician in the village for years. With the resources of her garden, she is able to create salves and tonics to help the villagers address their ailments. After both Mem and Anys die, though, Elinor and Anna compensate for this loss of medical expertise by experimenting with different plants and testing concoctions to see which medicines work to ward off the plague.
For much of the 17th century, women were prohibited from holding positions in the public sphere. Women's primary domain was the home, while fathers and husbands provided for the family. Female chastity and virtue were prized. In Year of Wonders, Anna constantly reminds the reader of these social realities through her narration. However, since her father is a drunk and since her husband dies so soon into their marriage, she realizes that she has more freedom than most women. Anna is still envious, though, of the greater freedom displayed by Anys Gowdie, who eschews societal roles and has the agency to do as she pleases. Yet this freedom has its own weaknesses: the villagers constantly accuse Anys of un-Christian behavior and of being in league with Satan. Each female character must make such decisions: be the meek woman society demands, or sacrifice her reputation for autonomy.
Because 17th-century men and women were not at liberty to be close friends with one another, women had to seek out other women in order to find companionship. These inter-female relationships appear numerous times in Year of Wonders, as Anna’s only real relationship with a male character is with Michael. Anna’s interactions with Elinor reveal how women become close to one another not only through necessity but also through hardship. Elinor and Anna can understand each other’s past without judgment. Anna and Anys have a similar relationship, in which each respects the other; Anys can see how dedicated Anna is to being a mother, and Anna knows that Anys truly wants to help the villagers stay healthy and fight disease. Although Aphra and Anna have a strained relationship, even their contact offers insight into how women interact with each other. There are small, subtle moments in their conversation when they can find common ground, especially on the subject of children.
The Black Death that swept Continental Europe and England in the fourteenth century was not the only appearance of the plague in history. In 1666, a new outbreak devastated the mountain village of Eyam, northwest of London. Geraldine Brooks uses this real-life event as the catalyst for Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a historical novel that may remind readers not only of Albert Camus’ The Plague, but also of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The plague that appears mysteriously in central England touches first a boarder at the home of Anna Frith, servant and friend of Elinor Mompellion. As it spreads, Anna, Elinor, and Elinor’s husband Michael, rector in the village, try to rally their neighbors to deal with the tragedy sensibly, praying to God but taking practical precautions such as burning infected clothing and supplies. Unfortunately, their efforts meet with mixed success, as others in the village are prone to believing that the devil’s curse is upon them. Some turn to the occult for answers; others simply succumb to the ravages of the disease. The Mompellions and Anna, first seen as pillars of strength, are soon objects of vilification and hatred. Then, as mysteriously as it appears, the plague runs its course, but not before it decimates the population and forever changes the lives of the principal protagonists.
Year of Wonders is a cross between a Victorian romance and a modern feminist tale. Anna, the novelist’s narrator, is a strong woman who demonstrates repeatedly that she can make her way in the world without men. The Mompellions appear to be the perfect couple, but both have dark secrets that plague their souls as fiercely as the bacillus virus does the bodies of other villagers. The novel’s supporting cast are vividly drawn, and the surprise ending seems neither forced nor implausible. Exceptionally well researched and deftly constructed, Year of Wonders is a work that deserves serious attention.