Philobiblon: Havoc and plague

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Havoc and plague

To complete a mixed day of work and indulgence I've devoted this evening to reading the much-praised Havoc In Its Third Year, by Ronan Bennett.

It has some interesting colourful set pieces, lots of period detail and so far as I can tell is very true to history, but overall I found it a disappointment. All but the main character, John Brigge, coroner, are only sketched as stereotypical stick figures: the stern Puritan hypocrite, the half-mad female vagrant prophet, the martyrdom-seeking Catholic priest, and even Brigge himself is a somehow bloodless, emotionless; his faith has no explanation and his resignation to fate seems unreal. (This may indeed be true to period, but doesn't engage this modern reader.)

I think the Booker judges got it right in leaving it off the shortlist, but here's a different view.

It did, however, send me back to what I consider a wonderful book, Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, about the "plague village" of Eyam, which, in the fiction as the history, locked itself off from neighbouring settlements to avoid spreading the contagion, and suffered horribly. The ending is perhaps a little Hollywoodish, and the main character overly "modern" in her thought, but it is a wonderfully uplifting tale.

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