The author's afterword explains that this book was inspired by the true story of the small village of Eyam in Derbyshire, which in 1666 voluntarily cut itself off from the rest of world when it was struck by the plague. This was an extraordinarily selfless act considering they were condemning many of their number/themselves to death by mandating that they live in proximity to the disease.
The motivations behind this decision and what the subsequent year of isolation, disease and death was like are the backbone of this novel. This has the promise of being a fascinating exploration and Geraldine Brooks does not disappoint.
She chooses to tell the story through the voice of a common villager who serves as maid to the rector and his wife. Anna is a good storyteller, believably of humble upbringing but clever and strong and compassionate. She is the cipher through which we see what the disease does to the populace, not just to their bodies but to their minds. While Anna, in a kind of hero-worship way follows the example of the Rector's tirelessly compassionate wife, many in the village turn to superstition and violence as the only way to explain and deal with the horrors that are being heaped upong them.
It's a well told and human story that despite its grim subject matter does not get too bogged down in a dark and pessimistic view of world. In fact, its overall tone is uplifting as Anna works through this crisis to elevate her character and her mind.
Its not perfect. The ending is rushed and a little too fantastical as if it was difficult to find the right ending. But a compelling historical novel with a strong emphasis on character. I highly recommend!