People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Published 2007 by Viking. Literary Fiction.
People of the Book is the latest novel from Pulitzer-Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, author of March and other acclaimed novels. I enjoyed it a lot.
The term "people of the book" usually refers to the Jewish people, and the book is usually the Hebrew Bible. Here, though, the book is the haggadah, the ceremonial text used during Passover celebrations, and the people are everyone from an African artist to a German art historian to a Muslim librarian and a Jewish diplomat- and more. The plot centers on the Sarajevo Haggadah, an old, gorgeously illuminated version of the Passover story whose origins are murky and whose survival has been tenuous and chancy over the years. The book is real, and some of the events in the book are real, but for the most part the story is fiction. The haggadah was saved twice in the last century, both times by Muslim librarians- during World War II, a Muslim librarian in the Sarajevo National Library hid the book in an Islamic library, and later, during the Bosnian War, another Muslim librarian risked his life to save it again.
The story opens in the spring of 1996, shortly after the end of the Bosnian war, when fictional conservation expert Hanna Heath arrives in Sarajevo to restore the book before it is put back on display. From here, the narrative alternates between Hanna's forward-moving adventures and the backward-moving story of the book's creation and lifespan, from its rescue during World War II back to its origins in pre-Medieval Spain.
Brooks uses the little physical clues that Hanna finds in the book itself as the basis for each of the short stories comprising the book's back story- a butterfly wing, a white hair, a blood stain. Each object leads to an element of the book's history, as well as the stories of the people connected to the book- the "people of the book" to whom the title refers. Each of these stories is an individual marvel of short fiction- Brooks paints whole worlds in vivid miniature, with intriguing characters and detailed settings. The best of these stories is the last, "The White Hair," a gorgeous mini-novella in which we learn the book's earliest origins and meet a fascinating, wonderful character in the narrator whose now-quiet life is the result of a tumult of drama and intrigue. In all of the stories, the characters are complex and full, and just about everyone has a secret- important secrets that impact the book directly. But the narrator of the final story has the best secrets of all.
Everyone has a secret, that is, except our Hanna, an open book so to speak. I enjoyed Hanna the most when Brooks had her playing the intrepid investigator and dedicated professional- off duty, Hanna struck me as whiny and unappealing; Brooks gives her dysfunctions in place of a personality. The action of the book- tracking down clues and rescuing the book once again- is well-paced and engrossing, and much more interesting than listening to her complain about her mother. The family drama adds little to the story, and had there been nothing at all about her family the book would have been fine, perhaps better. The love story felt a little forced as well, like something that Brooks perhaps wanted to include but did not spend a great deal of time perfecting. The supporting characters in Hanna's time line are mostly appealing and add enough to the plot to keep it going. Towards the end, the past and present come together, hinting at discoveries to come.
Overall I found the book to be compelling, addictive reading. I read it from cover to cover in about three days and could barely put it down. The writing is solid and polished; it's not a literary masterpiece but it's not light reading, either. The themes, about the traces that history leaves behind and the secrets you can never know, are illuminated beautifully. It is a terrific book for anyone looking for a good meaty read mixing action, intellectualism and history.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.