Absolutely beautiful - if you can call a book about the plague beautiful. Told from the point of view of young Anna Frith, a widow at 18 with 2 young children - this book tells the story of the village of Eyam in the Peak District.
Eyam is notable because during the outbreak of the plague this small village took the unthinkable decision to cut themselves off from all surrounding villages in an effort to stop the plague from spreading. They sacrificed themselves in order to save others.
Anna escaped an unhappy childhood to be married at 15 to a poor miner, his death in the mine 3 years later left her trying to bring up 2 young children, look after the animals they have and also act as servant to the villages rector and his wife.
It is the rector that suggests Anna as a potential landlady to a travelling tailor. Just it seems that Anna may finally be ready to have another man come into her life, that man falls deathly ill - following receipt of a bolt of cloth from London. Soon the illness spreads and the rector indentifies the illness as the plague.
This book doesn't shy away from the awful suffering of those afflicted - but it doesn't dwell on it either. It looks at the whole breakdown of the village, how superstition, greed and fear rip the village apart. How easily a witch-hunt can take place and murder is easily achieved. Overall there is a such a pall of grief over everything, which when it starts to lift feels like sunshine on your face after a long cold winter.
Anna is at the centre of all the action, as the plague outbreak begins in her home, claiming first her lodger then shortly after her own children. Her father is a terrible character, who after ruining her childhood becomes too greedy in his payment for digging graves (after the village sexton collapses and dies and the rector is exhausted by trying to take up the slack), finally overstepping the mark when he tries to bury a survivor alive. The fall-out from this action triggers Anna's stepmother to descend into madness.
But she is also responsible for wonderful acts of spirit, along with her employer Elinor. Trying to save a 9 year old orphans livelihood, by going into her family mine and risking their lives to mine enough lead to protect it for her. The friendship between Anna and Elinor is wonderfully written.
It of course asks questions about faith and belief - most especially when looking at the elderly survivors who struggle to understand why they have been spared when so many of the younger generation surcumbed. Ultimately it tells of hope - hope that despite everything you endure, you can continue to endure and learn and help others.
This is a beautiful book, wonderfully written - truely a book of wonders.