This book has been covered by a number of blogs and I liked the premise of the story so I took it away on holiday. Taking an actual event as its start point, the novel covers a year from spring 1666-7, when the Derbyshire village of Eyam took a brave and drastic measure to try and contain the plague when it hit their village, by imposing a quaranteen upon themselves.
Written in the first person, we follow Anna Frith, a shepherdess and house maid to the young Rector, Mr Mompellion and his wife Elinor. Anna is only young and already widowed with 2 children, and is blessed with a keen sense of survival and common sense. She recounts the year with all of its rural beauty, the folklore, her community,and she is a shrewd judge of character with more than a little kindness. The quaranteen, which was advocated by the Rector, throws them into a bizarre existence, where elaborate measures ensure food is brought in, but they have contact with no one from the outside for fear of infection. The village boundaries are set and their internment is kept.
While bodies drop in every household, yielding to the cruellest of diseases, the Rector, Anna and Elinor try to administer to the sick, while trying to keep order as villagers are consumed with grief and fear. It is not long before they start to turn upon each other as superstition and religious fervour gets a foothold in a frayed society. Desperate survival is sought, however unscrupulously, and many die along the way.
I liked Anna, even though she seemed like something of a wonder woman in parts. Quietly savvy, loving and sensible, she has the fortunate position of being a working girl who is also in with the privileged and educated, hearing their plans and being part of them, enabling us to see many sides of village life. I particularly enjoyed the accounts of herbal lore and rural living, the partnership between people and nature.
Many of the scenes have raw descriptions of death, either by disease, or by punishment. I didn't find these overwhelming, and anyone reading about the plague must expect this, but I didn't think it was gratuitous, however shocking. It pulls no punches.
The language includes some dialect and references to simple country living, which I found added to the beauty of the story, setting place and time. It also helps to place Anna's character within the story.
This is not just a story about death, but also survival, friendship, and sacrifice. It is also about love.
There was only really one part that I wasn't keen on and that was the ending, which didn't really fit with the rest of it. I felt as if I had wandered unguarded into another novel, and when I remember the book, I find I have brushed that part under the carpet, as if it doesn't belong. I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed it, being part of Anna's world for a short time, and I missed it when I finished it, re-reading some passages again.
Geraldine Brooks has a website here, where you can read about her and her work.
There is also a Penguin Reading Guide which may be of interest to reading groups.