Alis Hawkins spent an idyllic childhood on a dairy farm in West Wales, subsequently going on to read English at Oxford and then to train as a speech and language therapist. She now works part time as a specialist in autism spectrum conditions and spends the rest of her time writing. Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008. Having written and directed a promenade play for Rochester cathedral in 2009, she is currently working on a novel set during the Black Death. Alis blogs at Hawkins Bizarre. In this piece, she explains the impact of Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders on her own writing.
Alis Hawkins on Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
What do readers want from a historical novel? I loved historical fiction as a child, but when I became a teenager, the only historical novels I could find seemed to be bodice-ripping romance. By the time I became an adult, historical fiction was something I simply did not read.
But I was still fascinated by history and read non-fiction history books compulsively. And that reading fed my own fiction. It's axiomatic that you should write what you enjoy reading but I was writing what I wanted to read.
My first published novel was a 'dual narrative' - or, as I usually describe it, 'a split time book' - in which chapters alternate between characters and events in the 14th century and those in the present day. Though it's become a popular format, when I wrote the first draft over 10 years ago, a lot of my early readers wanted to know why I hadn't simply written a historical novel. The official answer was composed of phrases about the interaction of past and present, about the real fascination of history lying somewhere between what really happened and what we manage to piece together and understand. The unofficial answer was that I had never read a historical novel for adults that I truly admired. As I didn't want to throw myself into a genre I could not embrace wholeheartedly, dual narratives were safer.
And then I read Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders.
The things I had found lacking in the hist-fic I had previously read were all luminously present here: language that conveys that other time with economy and grace; characters who are of their time, and whose different habits of thought and assumption allow us to see what is contingent in human nature and what is essential; events that flow with the inevitability of tragedy from those characters' interactions; a depth of historical research and understanding that shows itself in relevant details rather than in paragraphs of exposition or avalanches of clothing, dishes, implements, furniture, period turns of phrase and wider historical context that can leave you feeling that an author has included every single thing he or she has read about the period. (You wouldn't explain the difference between a hatch-back and people carrier in a modern novel so why would you explain exactly what kind of carriage people are travelling in?) Brooks takes the reader's intelligence seriously and doesn't explain everything. Many of the words she uses - whisket, toadstone, barmester, spud (not a potato), pipkin, stemple – have to be understood in context and are not glossed. Their unfamilarity gives the book a texture that is difficult to describe but is both earthy and erudite.
I suppose what I'm saying is that Brooks has written a literary novel which just happens to be set in the past.
People dying in a closed community is usually the preserve of the traditional detective novel as characters drop like flies at a stately home or the grim reaper follows a murderer to a small island off the Engish coast. In Year of Wonders the enclosed community is a voluntarily-quarantined Peak District village and the killer stalking the crofts and lead-mines is yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague.
The year of the title (borrowed from Dryden's 'annus mirabilis') is actually an 18-month period between Spring 1665 and 'leaf fall' 1666; the wonders in question are experienced by the book's narrator, Anna Frith.
A widowed mother-of-two at eighteen, Anna takes in a lodger – an itinerant tailor called George Viccars. It is he who begins the year of wonders for Anna. George is a travelled man and, in the few months he spends with the little family before dying of the plague, he expands Anna's horizons beyond her isolated village. From his less-than-wondrous description of the stinking, overcrowded capital to the fancied wonders of north Africa that his damasks inspire, the world beyond the village begins to open to Anna's imagination.
And who wouldn't want a wider world? The drudgery and narrow-mindedness of the village - a narrow mindedness made all the clearer to Anna by her relationship with the rector's wife - is enviably well-portrayed and the descent of the community into terror, paranoia and reprisal is done with a sense not only that this is the kind of thing that probably would happen in such circumstances but that, given the characters the novel has introduced us to, it could not help but happen in this particular village. Witch hunting, religious mania and the sheer out-and-out inhumanity of man to man spring up with an inevitability that is both satisfying and horrifying. Anna's collaboration-in-healing with Elinor Mompellion, the rector's wife - and everything that flows from it - strikes the reader as no less inevitable.
Year of Wonders is subtitled 'A Novel of the Plague' which – I think – undersells it horribly. The book is actually about what happens to individuals in circumstances of extreme stress. Whereas people might flee from war or famine, in this instance they have agreed - and are held to this agreement as much by the violence of their neighbours as by any high moral principle - to remain where they are. And we see how that remaining, that immurement with the plague, changes people.
Year of Wonders is not the only admirable historical novel I have ever read. I've since discovered Sarah Dunant, Tracey Chevalier, Sharon Penman and, more recently, the wonderful As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann. But Year of Wonders remains the book that convinced me that historical fiction was a genre in which one could write unforgettable novels.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]