Megan Harlan
August 10, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In 1666, when the bubonic plague traveled to the English village of Eyam via a bolt of infected cloth, the town’s reverend took the unprecedented step of imposing a quarantine. In Year of Wonders, journalist Geraldine Brooks fictionalizes this true story through the eyes of the reverend’s maid, flinty young widow Anna Frith. Two thirds of the villagers succumb to the black death, and many survivors descend into madness — devil worship, mob lynchings — in Brooks’ viscerally detailed tale (the plague’s strange early symptom: the scent of rotting apples on a person’s skin). Though the historical detail is absorbing, it is the story of Anna — her courage, her struggle to understand God’s will — that is Brooks’ most wondrous touch.

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