Sunday, October 10, 2010

People of the Book: A Review

Geraldine Brooks is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, but her follow-up effort, The People of the Book, may be even better. The novel is, interestingly enough, the fictional story of a real-life book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the first Jewish religious books to contain images, written and illuminated at a time when only Christian texts were illuminated because both Jews and Muslims considered it idolatrous.
The main human character is rare book expert Hanna Heath, and the book's journey from Spain in 1492 to 1996 Sarajevo is unveiled through some very small items she finds while restoring the book: an insect wing, missing silver clasps, some salt crystals, a wine stain, and a single white hair. As Hanna pursues her scientific investigation of the book, a series of vignettes explain how these sparse items trace the history of the Haggadah over the past 500 years: from Spain at the time of the Inquisition to Renaissance Venice to Sarajevo in both World War II and the ethnic wars of the 1990s.
Taken by itself, the part of the narrative featuring Hanna and her efforts regarding the preservation of the book is much like any number of other bibliomysteries, from The Name of the Rose to The Codex to The Dante Club. There is the requisite love story featuring Hanna and the Bosnian Muslim curator of the Museum, a man who saved the book from the destruction of the National Library during the civil war. The numerous sections dealing with Hanna's strained relationship with her surgeon mother sometimes slow the pace down unnecessarily. And there is, of course, a plot twist at the end that is indeed quite surprising.
What sets this book apart, however are the vignettes about the book's history and journey. Each is like a short story within the novel and stands alone as outstanding story-telling in their own right, with fully formed plots and three-dimensional characters you really want to know much more about. And these otherwise disparate tales are woven into a timeline that dovetails seamlessly with the present-day part of the story, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.
Geraldine Brooks does an amazing job of pulling this ambitious literary endeavor together and guiding it to a very satisfactory conclusion. She once again exhibits the talent that was obvious both in March and her debut novel, and we can only hope that she will continue delivering novels this good well into the future.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favourite books! I actually felt inspired by it to look up what it would take to become a rare book expert and book repair!