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Geraldine Brooks’ The Year of Wonders

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1 Geraldine Brooks’ The Year of Wonders
Structure Geraldine Brooks’ The Year of Wonders

2 Non-Linear Year of Wonders is NON-LINEAR
This means that the events in the novel are not presented in a chronological order (in the order in which they occurred on a timeline) Brooks uses this structure to create MEANING Is it because Brooks is CHALLENGING the reader?

3 Challenging the reader
It challenges what we thought we knew about the extent of the development of Anna’s character; We meet her at what we think is the end of the novel and assume this is Anna’s endpoint and she will not develop any more. It challenges our expectations about how the novel will end.

4 Challenging what we know
We suddenly understand the novel will progress beyong Leaf-Fall in 1666 when we get to page 270. This is arguably an unexpected development, especially as it occurs very close to the end of the novel. Why? Because the novel opened at this point in time, with Anna as the participant narrator recounting what had happened to her and the village since spring in 1665.

5 What do we expect? The reader has every reason to expect the narrative would return to where it started by the end of the novel. (That’s called a circular narrative. Indeed the narrative does cycle back to this point by pg 270, but we are then surprised to find that Anna is about to reveal what happened after that point in time. Suddenly she tells us that “I can tell you further” (270). We are now radically less certain about the point in time Anna is recounting this new narrative from. We do not know at this point how much further in time this narrative will extend to. We do know, however, that we can no longer assume that we have enough information to form a complete picture of how Anna is thinking now.

6 The Epilogue It is only during the Epilogue that we discover that Anna is recounting this part of the narrative in Oran in “three years” (330) after the point of time where she left us at the end of the second Apple-picking Time Chapter on page 294. She has just ‘raised [her] hand’ to Michael Mompellion to bid him farewell. At the apparent ‘end’, it appeared that she was inevitably heading to Elinor’s father’s place just as Michael had arranged. Yet Brooks seems to make a point of not fulfilling the reader’s expectations...

7 Why... For Anna? One way of reading Brooks’ purpose is to see it as a challenge to the way we as readers tend to pigeon–hole a character and assume we know all there is to know about how much they can develop and grow. After reading the Epilogue we are compelled to at least re-evaluate the Anna we thought we knew at the start of the novel and even by the end of page 294.

8 How does Anna develop? She develops even beyond that frame of reference and at the very least we must add to our picture of Anna. It is not as if those further changes in her perspective and life are discontinuous with how she had changed previously, but the degree and rapidity of the changes she reveals to us in the Epilogue are significant. Perhaps this suggests Brooks’ implied authorial view about how much characters can develop and the time-frame in which that development can reasonably take place.

9 We have to consider it... Certainly it prompts the reader to think more consciously about these questions. The narrative structure itself also puts a certain responsibility on us to be active readers because we need to do the work of piecing this non-linear structure together in a way that makes sense to us. We must do this if we are going to make judgements about who we think Anna is and make our own interpretations about how and why she changed.

10 Withheld information We realise that Anna has withheld crucial information about her life journey and even insights into her life choices. This has implications for the way we will judge her as character and relate to her as the narrator. At the very least we might find ourselves asking why Anna (and by implication Brooks) decided it was best to at first withhold and then reveal all. Does this have an impact on how we judge Anna?

11 Does this help our understanding?
Would we have been able to understand (and give proper regard to) what prompted the changes in her from 1665 to 1666 if we already knew how dramatically she had changed and how she is thinking in 1669? By presenting the story in a way that essentially gives us two separate recounts, Brooks can do justice to Anna’s overall development.

12 The critics We must note that:
quite a few critics and reviewers of the novel questioned whether Brooks had gone too far in the Epilogue In what way? In terms of the extent of Anna’s further changes and how quickly she changed. Brooks argues that she has met women who had lived very ‘restricted lives’ who had suddenly found themselves able ‘to step out of their old roles ‘and ‘travel enormous personal distances’(317). In her view then, “If those women could change and grow so remarkably ...Anna could too” (318).

13 What was my point? To summarise what we may argue (or consider) to be the purpose underpinning Brooks’ use of this kind of narrative structure. It compels the reader to re-evaluate and augment their view of Anna. It challenges us to think more consciously about how we tend to pigeon –hole characters. It may have been the only way that Brooks could do justice to the extent of change that Anna undergoes. Revealing too much too early may have made it harder for readers to process her development. The second recount could have shaded and deflected the reader’s attention away from the important changes Anna undergoes between 1665 and 1666 It implies an authorial view about how rapidly a character can develop and change.

14 Other factors: Anna as narrator
While Anna reveals a lot to us as readers she does not try to dominate us and determine how we should interpret her story. The reasonably open-ended narrative invites the reader to interpret the story for themselves; Anna certainly doesn’t prescribe how we should read her story. Anna Frith admits to not knowing, even in hindsight, why she made the key decision to ‘sever every tie that bound [her] to [her] old life.’(298) We are given the freedom by Brooks to decide that for ourselves. We are invited to accept that some of the key decisions people make about their lives remain a mystery-even to themselves.

15 Open-ended questions Important questions are left open-ended enough to invite various readings (alternative interpretations) of the novel. Especially in the Epilogue: Why was Anna’s life able to pan out the way it did? Was it just an extraordinary sequence of good luck, after a year of such horrible ill-fortune? Is Brooks implying that life and the circumstances we face are essentially random; or is Brooks suggesting some influence of “a destiny” which shapes our lives. Is the novel suggesting that these coincidences are simply a fortunate turn of events that Anna was able to exploit or are we to see them as in some way ‘meant’ to be.(287)

16 What does Anna think? Anna herself appears to veer ambiguously between presenting these events and decisions (which made it possible for her to be living as she does by the end of the novel) as sometimes good luck and sometimes meaningful serendipity. Anna admits her limitations about ever knowing why she made some crucial choices ‘I do not rightly know, even now...’(298) Sometimes she points to events which shaped her destiny as quirkily ironic “fittingly enough’(299) or hints that they might be a meaningful synchronicity. At other times she emphasizes that she didn’t so much make choices herself as have some of those choices ‘made for [her]’ (299) and imposed on her by the decisions of others.

17 The effect of others? Anna’s purpose.
Other choices are presented as the result of her deepest intuitions which made it ‘suddenly seem to [her]’ as if [she] ‘had been bought to...’ this place to fulfil her ‘vocation’ (300). In this mood we are presented with an Anna who is ‘fixed in [her] purpose’ (300) and knows ‘very clearly’ (298) what she must do. She knows who she is not and who she is -‘Anna’ (299). We are also presented with Ahmed Bey’s view (and Anna herself, despite her apparent agnosticism, calls him ‘the’ she has ‘ever known’ (301) that she had been sent to him by ‘Allah’ after he had prayed for ‘assistance’(301)

18 What was my point about open-endedness?
Anna (as the narrator) does not dominate her readers or impose a privileged interpretation on us. There is enough ambiguity in the Epilogue especially in the way Anna’s life pans out to invite different interpretations about what caused the circumstances which shape Anna’s choices. Was she shaped by: God/ Fate/ serendipity & synchronicity / her own skilful exploitation of chance circumstances/making her own luck/ luck and totally random if fortunate coincidences or is it essentially an unsolvable mystery? Readers can interpret what unfolds for her from one or even a combination of these perspectives. They can see it as strongly suggestive of fate or luck or an ambiguous combination paradoxically suggestive of both.

19 Another question...? Another question we are invited to consider is why Anna chooses to accept the form of marriage and the constraints on the life she has in Oran. Anna does suggest much about why she accepts these constraints and is clearly happy as the novel ends. However, not everything is made explicit and much is implied. What is also implied is what Brooks’ message is to her largely western non-Muslim 21st Century readers about Anna’s choices and her preference for 17th Century Oran over 17th century England/Europe/ Western civilisation. This Epilogue clearly challenges Western stereotypes about Muslim/Islamic culture.

20 What else does Brooks suggest?
Brooks seems to undermine neat judgements we may have about which value system and society was (and perhaps is) better for women. Anna chooses to accept constraints on her, but with this choice comes a certain amount of autonomy not available to her in the West at that time. What are we to make of the way Anna presents the polygamous marriage of convenience she has accepted? Isn’t it presented in a way that goes beyond a pragmatic acceptance of it as the best of available options? Isn’t there more than a hint of it being presented as a legitimate form of relationship for the other woman involved in Ahmed Bey’s “harem”? Isn’t there the sense that Anna values the relationships she is able to have with the other woman in that harem and the extended family it provides for her and her children?

21 What does Anna value in marriage?
Despite her references to the way other women can suffer in that culture if they are in more restrictive traditional marriages, the culture and that key aspect of it is presented in a way that seems normal? What would a feminist reading make of that part of the narrative? Anna also makes it clear that she is not Bey’s wife in ‘flesh’ (301); she has clearly decided that her ‘vocation’ and the opportunity to learn more is more important to her than an intimate relationship. by marrying Bey, she has virtually ensured that she will never know that kind of intimacy again unless she develops that kind of relationship with Bey. Given what readers know of about her sexual desires from her short relationship with Michael this cannot have been an easy decision for her. She has clearly had to make some very big decisions about what she values most.

22 So what? Brooks is not offering us a conventional narrative with closure. It leaves us with as many questions as it answers. Brooks does not offer us easy or conventional judgements or answers in response to the questions she is exploring. Brooks explores conflicts within characters, between characters, between characters and their society. Brooks presents us with a complex series of causes of the changes which Anna undergoes. She does arguably present Anna as a more laudable person than most characters, but she does not present us with an Anna who has all the answers.

23 Other ways that Brooks constructs meaning in this text....
Readers should note the way Brooks deploys symbolism to plot ,register and explore how Anna develops as a character. Some symbols to explore are: Anteros ( Michael Mompellion’s horse). How does the horse’s name relate to the Brooks’ use of that name in the novel. How does this relates to Michael/ Anna /Elinor/Theme of unrequited love/love returned/other associations Brooks develops and generates-liberation self – love. (See pages 5, 6, 271/272/273!/274/275!/276, 293!/294) Light 45/ 235!/245 Fire /241/242/249

24 SO...... Try to incorporate Brooks’ message into your responses.
You can facilitate this by using the author’s name in your paragraphs. This will force you to think about what she is trying to say. Try to think about structural features as contributing to Brooks’ message. How did she use structure to convey meaning?

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