Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
When Anna takes in a tailor as a lodger, it seems she might have been given a second chance at love. But when he succumbs to a dreadful illness, her life, as are the lives of all her neighbours, is turned upside down. A bolt of cloth has brought the Great Plague to Eyam and, led by the rector, the villagers agree to isolate themselves to avoid spreading the disease further afield.
This lovely debut novel is based on a true story – a story I know quite well, having walked through the village and its surroundings for years. But the author made me think more deeply about the sacrifice of these ordinary people in the mid-seventeenth century, as well as entertaining me with her inventiveness beyond the scanty original sources. And Anna’s voice captivated me from the first page.
I was impressed and delighted by the author’s depiction of the landscape, especially when I learnt that – although she’d visited the area a few years earlier – she wrote the story while living in a similar sized village in rural Virginia. My only quibble is in the repeated references to the White Peak as if it were a mountain, when it’s actually an area – an understandable confusion given that peak in Peak District refers to the original inhabitants of the area, not a summit.
I also have mixed feelings about the ending. Not that it wasn’t credible or satisfying, but the sudden burst of drama didn’t seem in keeping with the rest of the novel. Nevertheless, I’d certainly recommend it. And thanks to my sister-in-law for lending me her copy.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
But she’s determined to do her duty as Duchess and loving wife and, initially, she seems to have more freedoms than at home. But Alfonso can be as cruel as he is tender and, in Renaissance Italy, men wield all the power.
The title didn’t particularly draw me in but I do enjoy feminist retellings of history and this proved to be one of my favourite reads of the year. I particularly liked the credible but chilling contradictions in Alfonso’s character and Lucrezia’s gradual realisation that he wants to kill her. I thought the author was a little mean with one aspect of the resolution, but it did make sense.
As well as enjoying her books as a reader, I often find I learn a lot from Maggie O’Farrell as a writer. I wrote about that in this almost-ten-years-ago post: Instructions for a Novel. The Marriage Portrait reminded me that, although I like to keep my prose tight and economical, it helps to slow down at moments of tension. And also how much readers like having someone to hate.
I’m thinking of villains as I prepare the next chapter of my dystopian novel, Snowflake, to submit to my critique group. We’ve been going through it chapter by chapter for most of this year – although I began writing it in 2018 – and are now approaching the climax. This novel also has a Lucrecia, although it’s miles and centuries away from The Marriage Portrait. I feel as if I’ve been working on it for centuries – maybe I’ll finally manage to publish it next year.
With that novel in mind, I’d expected it to be easy to respond to this week’s flash fiction challenge to compose a 99-word story about flakes. But it wasn’t until I started experimenting with the various interpretations of the word that I came up with my contribution. There’s a villain in this story, but which of the two characters most merits the name?
Snowflakes cling to the cracked windowpanes. Flecks of dandruff fall from Grandpa’s scalp. “This’ll all be yourn when I’m gone.”
I hunch over my cornflakes. Twenty acres and a farmhouse with crumbling walls can’t compensate for years of slavery.
Grandpa coughs. Gurgles. Crackles. Hands hover at his throat. I spring to my feet and thump him between the shoulder blades. No use.
I was the flakiest student on the First Aid course. Failed the Heimlich manoeuvre on account of my withered arm. Mangled by the machine when Grandpa disabled the failsafe device. When he stops breathing, I’ll call 999.