Fiction — audiobook. Read by Geraldine Brooks. Blackstone Audio, 2010. 10 hours, 9 minutes. Library copy.
A timely read given the rising fears about ebola — at least, according to my book club — Brook’s novel opens in 1666 and introduces the reader to their narrator Anna Firth, a widow who lost her two young boys soon after the death of her husband in the town’s mind. As maid and caretaker for the rectory, Anna is now charged with acting as gatekeeper to the reclusive rector, Michael Mompellion, who refuses to see anyone from the village following the death of his wife, Elinor.
The cause of death for Anna’s sons or for Michael’s wife remains unspoken until Elizabeth Bradford arrives in the village demanding the rector come administer to her mother. Michael refuses citing the Bradfords abandonment of the village as plague swept through the community, and it is up to Anna to decide if she should follow Elinor’s lead and administer to Elizabeth’s very ill mother.
Brooks’ novel is slow to begin and never establishes an emotional connection between the readers and the characters despite the mystery surrounding the death of Elinor or the reason behind Elizabeth’s return. The novel is technically well-written — lovely prose, vivid imagery, nicely crafted sentences — but the characterizations are degraded by the conclusion of the tale, which greatly disappointed me, and there is little about the periphery characters to leave an impression.
Of course, these are the characters that are supposed to establish the setting, to explain the growth of the characters, particularly the reactions of Anna and Michael to the death of Elinor. Even Mem Gowdie and her niece, Anys Gowdie, who are murdered after the townspeople become convinced the two are witches who caused the plague, fall to garnish a higher emotional reaction than the gut reaction of how wrong such actions are.
The most intriguing aspect of the novel and the reason why my book club selected it for our November discussion is Brooks’ exploration of the reactions of the characters to the outbreak of the plague. Some, as I mentioned above, seize upon ideas of witchcraft and superstition while others descent into ultra-conservative religious interpretations of the Bible. From a sociological perspective, I enjoyed seeing how these reactions played out in novel. Yet I rarely had an emotional reaction as one would expect from such a tale hence my overall disappointment.
In my struggle to get into this story, I switched from the print edition to the audiobook as read by the author. Unfortunately, the narration failed to bring this novel alive for me as Brooks reads her work in a slow, methodical tone that heightened my boredom rather than alleviated it. I tried increasing the speed of the narration, but that clipped her words and made it difficult to determine exactly what she was saying.