This bestselling historical novel of a plague-ridden 17th century village by Geraldine Brooks has been praised for its “rigorous regard for period detail” and “elegant prose.” Let me expand on that — Brooks’s period detail is woven seamlessly into the storytelling so that she doesn’t have to stop to explain to the reader, in parenthetical phrases, archaic words or practices that are mentioned. You understand the details because of the context in which she places them. That’s real skill, a writer at the top of her craft.
The story is a fictionalized account of the small Derbyshire town of Eyam whose citizens, in 1665, made the selfless decision to quarantine themselves when Bubonic Plague strikes the village, thus stopping infection from spreading to nearby communities. Anna Frith, a young widow and servant, is the narrator, and her evolution is the backbone of the story. Kind and strong at the outset of the tale, she becomes fiercely independent by the end of it.
After reading the description of the story on the back cover, I knew what to expect once the book got going–the witch accusations, the ghastly deaths, the violence. There was, in fact, a sense of “we’ve seen this movie before” reading them. Brooks was wise not to embellish her prose too much in these sections. The mere laying out of actions and reactions was enough. This was the strength of Brooks’s writing–her quietness, her matter-of-fact narration. This, along with that elegant descriptive prose and period detail, placed the reader squarely in the story so that you could not only see and hear the 17th century villagers but smell their town’s best and worst scents.
Despite admiring and enjoying these aspects of the author’s skill, I finished the book angry! Beware–if you’ve not read this novel, spoilers follow…
As you would expect, a story of such vast death and destruction confronts questions of good and evil, faith and faithlessness, God…and no God. Brooks does an admirable job of placing these weighty subjects in appropriate context and keeping them from becoming sermonettes. Anna Frith is Everywoman in this regard, struggling with these heavy topics the way ordinary men and women do when confronted with tragedy and unknowable pain.
But Anna, while the narrator, is not the only pivotal character in this book, and I found myself warming with irritation when the author took the respectable, if imperfect, character of the minister, Michael Mompellion, and turned him at the end of the story into a gross misogynist, whose past treatment of his wife Elinor was the epitome of lust-hating but inwardly lustful zealot. I’ve seen that movie before, too. And its excesses seemed out of place in this nuanced and understated story.
In fact, the backstory of Elinor Mompellion seemed excessive as well, standing out in this quietly sorrowful story like a red blotch on a Monet lilypad painting. Why, I wondered, did Brooks throw that in? Well, to give her subsequent revelation of the minister’s dark side a foundation. These parts of the story and one other plot twist made me feel the presence of the author, smirking in the background.
What was the other twist? (Again, spoiler alert!) At the end of the novel, Anna leaves the village after the plague has passed, taking with her a newborn babe abandoned by its family, and she ends up in…an Arabian harem, happy as a clam with these gentle “Muselmen.” At which point, I found myself thinking, “Really? Really?” You paint poor misguided Michael Mompellion as a crude psychological abuser, and you think it’s just dandy that these “Muselmen” engage in the woman-degrading practice of polygamy? C’mon.
This moved my irritation up a notch. It finally exploded in anger, however, when I read the author’s notes at the end. Turns out there was a real minister of that little town of Eyam, a William Mompesson, whom Brooks describes as “heroic and saintly.” He did, after all, convince his fellow villagers to impose the quarantine on themselves.
So, Brooks took this real “saintly and heroic” man, Mompesson, and turned him into the priggish and boorish Mompellion (perhaps she thought changing his name to Schmompesson was too obvious?). In other words, she ruined his reputation with her fictional retelling. Sure, he’s long dead, and sure, we don’t know much about him except his good deeds, but….well…really? Why? Why bestow on Mompellion’s wife, Elinor, all the saintly characteristics? Why not give Mompesson some credit?
In her notes, Brooks blithely mentions her liberties with the truth. I get that — historical fiction is fiction. But why not make up another name for this dude instead of the lightly disguised Mompellion. I mean….c’mon. You gratuitously slammed what appears to have been a good man, and for what? Your novel was good but was it worth that?
So, while I give Brooks props for the storytelling, the historical research, the prose, I say “shame on you” for taking a real man and turning him into a misogynistic religious nut while at the same time giving readers the impression that Anna’s true paradise lay in the confines of a woman-degrading harem. Sorry, that’s just…nuts.