Given the subject matter - an outbreak of plague in the 17th century - I was prepared to read a depressing story. It is indeed bleak, yet the storytelling is so superb and the prose so evocative, that I couldn't put it down. This book is based on the true story of an English village Eyam, whose inhabitants quarantined themselves to contain the outbreak while undergoing dreadful suffering. The author has researched the known historical facts very well and woven them into a rich narrative with vivid details. Through the first-person narrative by Anna Frith, a housemaid at the village rectory, we see the disruption of the peaceful (I assume) existence by the first plague death, the slow understanding of what they were facing, superstition and collapse of faith, the terrible and heart-breaking casualties until the contagion finally fades out. We see the rector Mompellion guiding the villagers and trying to hold up their spirits through this unprecedented ordeal, supporting them beyond the point of exhaustion. We see his wife, Elinor, assisted by Anna, trying to provide as much nursing care and comfort as she can to the villagers in their unbearable grief, without the benefit of medical knowledge or supplies.
On the downside, the language and the sensibility come across as too modern. Elinor and Anna come across as highly intellectual and feminist - which one could accept in the educated high-class lady, but seeing it in an uneducated village girl with a vulgar family background stretches the imagination too hard. I was a little troubled by repeated, graphic details of the manifestations of the disease. Pain and fear can drive people to madness, but some of the cruel actions arising out of it really disturbed me. I mean, it is all believable but disturbing nevertheless.
But what quite destroyed the great story was the end.