From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

Friday, June 4, 2010

Book Review Friday: The Fiction of Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is an Australian born journalist who has written three novels, one of them capturing the Pulitzer Prize. While none of her books are brand new to the marketplace -- the most recent of them published in 2008 -- all of them are worth your while. Brooks develops exquisite characters, uses historical backdrops to add tumultuous depth, and writes beautifully. Each book has it's own feel as if different authors might have penned them. I think that's what makes her a wonderful writer...the ability to re-invent herself from novel to novel.

     Year of Wonders is set in a small English village in the1600's.  The story centers around a young widowed mother of two boys, Anna Firth, who finds that the plague has entered her town through a contaminated bolt of cloth brought into her home by her tenant.  The plague spreads quickly through the town.  While the wealthy flee the town's borders, the regular folk decide to quarantine themselves, letting no one in or out, hoping to stop the spread of the deadly disease.  After losing those dear to her, Anna finds herself aiding the townspeople, assisting a local woman with herbal remedies.  Out of desperation, villagers turn on one another with accusations of witchcraft, theft, and in-fighting.  Despite the death all around her, Anna can't help her deep feelings for the religious leader of the village, though his wife is Anna's dear friend.  This novel is deeply emotional, but a hopeful ending to the story offers relief.  The themes of the book are heavy, but the character development, prose, and historical detail are top notch.  This is my favorite of the three books.

March is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in America's Civil War.  In a way, this novel is an eloquent piece of fan fiction, for the main character, Mr. March, is taken from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.  I'm embarrassed to say that I had never read Little Women.  However, I did not feel too deprived for back story.  Brooks weaves in real historical figures as tertiary characters such as John Brown and Henry David Thoreau. Mr. March, from the abolitionist, intellectual town of Concord, Massachusetts, volunteers for the Union because he feels so deeply for the cause that he is willing to leave his family.  Mr. March finds himself a guppy in a pool of sharks as a Union chaplain and covert reading teacher to freed slaves.  The ugliness of racism on both sides of the conflict weighs heavily upon him, though he filters the garish details from his flowery letters back home to his little women.  After March suffers a near fatal injury, the story takes both he and his wife, Marmee, to Washington D.C. during his convalescence.  There, the point of view turns to that of Marmee, who feels some bitterness over March's sacrifices because his decisions forced her to make sacrifices of her own.  She discovers a relationship that March shared with a lovely mulatto woman.  Both characters are strongly drawn, though March sometimes seems more womanly than Marmee.  Still, they are each well defined.  The use of language in this book seems to be plucked right from the 19th century, though it is not cumbersome.  If you are interested in the Civil War, race relations, or 19th century literature, this is your book.

People of the Book follows the path of an ancient Jewish illustrated manuscript from the circumstances of its creation in medieval Spain to present day, though not in linear fashion.  The unifying character is Hanna Heath, a specialist in the restoration of ancient texts, as she discovers unexpected tiny artifacts in the book's binding:  an insect wing, wine stain, cat hair, and sea salt.  Hanna's narrative pauses while the reader is taken to centuries past to find out how each artifact wound up in the religious text. Because Hanna's story stops and starts amid the digressions to centuries past, I found it a little difficult to establish a connection with her.  The fact that she's fiercely independent and a bit jaded didn't help either.  Regardless, some of the characters in the sub-plots, from Spain to Venice and Vienna to Sarajevo, are strong and sympathetic.  People of the Book is more akin to a series of interrelated short stories, though the stories are masterfully stitched together through Hanna's narrative.  The good and evil of the world's three major religions is a theme throughout. 

1 comment:

  1. Rachel, thank you so much for focusing this Friday Review on one of my personal favorite authors. I have read both Year of Wonders and People of the Book and found them to be absolutely mesmerizing. Personally, I enjoyed the back and forth time span in People of the Book, although I will concede that other readers have noted the same hesitation that you point out in warming up to Hanna. (I did not have this issue.) Year of Wonders is spectacular!! And so it should go without saying that I will now have to add March to my (ever-growing) "to-read" list!


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