This is one of those books. Those books you see in shops, hear mentioned on the radio, friends sometimes talk about them and you think, maybe I’ll read it someday, maybe I won’t. One of those books you might not have read, but then circumstances lead you to and then you’re so glad that you did. I loved this book, it was so beautiful and enjoyable and horrifying and wonderful and I’m so very glad that I did read it.
While the narrative was compelling and kept me reading, I most enjoyed the relationships Brooks developed between those in the village. Mostly I think I reveled in the illumination of love between the characters that she described so warmly. Anna’s love of her husband Sam, the way she adored her beautiful babies, her love of her friend Elinor and the possibility of love, briefly, with the tailor. As well as relationships, Brooks did a beautiful job at creating a vivid portrait of individuals within the community. In my mind I also keep returning to the Gowdie women, Mem and Anys, and the way that their memory refused to be suppressed after their horrific murders, murders that demonstrated the incredible power that transgressive women can have.
I also greatly admired the use of language that Brooks employed, playing around with the old words of the local dialect without providing explanation of what they meant, instead leaving the reader to make sense of them in their context. I am not sure of the providence of the words, but I feel that they added greatly to the parochial nature of the tale, a story so grounded in the land and the tradition of the region.These were the details that I so enjoyed about the book, the colour that she added to the life of the miners and their families, the traditions of small villages and the lives of those that it is often so difficult to find about in history, of women. This book is a beautiful example of historical fiction done properly and a wonderful testament to the memory of the brave community who sacrificed so much to protect the communities around them.
For a story that was set in a quarantined community, strangely enough the book never made me feel claustrophobic. I think perhaps the inner life of Anna prevented me from feeling the walls closing in and I only remembered at the end, when Anna rides Anteros through the neighbouring village after the quarantine has been lifted, how isolated they really were.
The book took what I thought was a very unexpected turn towards the end. I thought I had an inkling as to what would happen once she helped the mother Bradford deliver her baby safely. I thought that she would take the baby, move to another place and start a new life. I didn’t really anticipate the extent to which that life would change and it was bizarre but wonderfully so. Also, the revelations of the Rectors true nature shocked and disturbed me, making me sad for poor Elinor and angry that the Rector was really just had a cold heart the whole time. I think I felt that I had been duped by him, sensing a small part of the betrayal Anna must have felt after devoting so much of her life to the Mompellions.
Ultimately, I think what the Brooks achieved was to illuminate the world of women, and of one woman in particular. To give her flesh, colour and life and to give her confidence and capability. She illustrated through Anna the way that ordinary people become extraordinary through exceptional circumstances.
Now reading: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
postscript. I think, perhaps, that it might be a bit strange that I took such a warm feeling away from a book that was actually quite grim and brutal and was set during a plague. Maybe we’ll put that down to me reading this during the time that I became an Aunty.