Tuesday, February 24, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This book is kind of messy. It’s the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Hebrew book used during the Passover Seder, and currently owned by and on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Most of the history of this book is unknown, though what is known is fascinating. Created some time in the 14th century in Spain and lavishly illustrated during a time when Jews traditionally did not illustrate their texts, the book was rescued from almost certain destruction at least twice by Muslim librarians and museum directors (once during World War II, then again during the Bosnian War), and once by a Catholic priest in the 17th century.

While the Sarajevo Haggadah is real, this book is a novel. Geraldine Brooks has created a fictional manuscript restorer named Hanna Heath, and more interesting, a fictional back story for the Haggadah itself, one that fills in all the gaps that are missing from the real story. Brooks uses information Hanna discovers during her restoration work as jumping off points for her chapters about the book’s (speculative) history. Thus for example Hanna’s discovery of a white hair in the binding leads to the story of the book’s illustrator who used paint brushes made of cat hair.

I loved the story of the Haggadah and of all the various people who created it, owned it, sold it, won it, hid it, and found it. What I thought was messy was Hanna’s story, which is not nearly as well done and is mostly just a big distraction. I think the idea of using Hanna as a framing device is a good one, but Brooks could have made her parts much simpler and shorter. It was like she couldn’t decide whether to write a book about Hanna or about the Haggadah so she did both and squished them together. Back in January 2007 I had a similar complaint about another book that uses the same device: The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble. Both novels incorporate stories from the past using the device of a book that ends up in the hands of a modern character. A better execution of this technique is in Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (not exactly the same: Stott uses Isaac Newton's prism in place of a book).

Despite this flaw this was a really interesting book and kept me happy for hours. I am proclaiming it my first favorite book of 2009. The Web has lots of interesting information about the Haggadah (click here for the Wikipedia article and click here for a German site that has color images of each illustration.) Click here to go to Geraldine Brooks’s site and see a map of all the locations from the book. (Finally, a map! Hooray!)

(Book 7, 2009)


Louise | Italy said...

Thanks for this review. I enjoy these mystery historical novels, and this one seems right up my street, despite your criticisms. It's on my list! Nice site, by the way. This is my first visit and won't be my last.

Sarah Laurence said...

People of the Book is in my stack and just moved up a notch after your review.

Madeleine said...

To be honest I did not like this book much, I also found it messy and actually stopped reading it.

Nic Heath said...

If this book had been written by anyone other than Brooks I'm not sure I would have finished it. I certainly think it is the weakest of her fiction (altho I read her first, Year of Wonders, years ago). Hanna struck me as false and I just wasn;t interested in reading about her.

Still, the historical narrative strands seemed well researched and provided an element of depth.

Have you read her other books?

Nic Heath said...

I just read your post about Year of Wonders - question answered!

Unknown said...

Don't read this book. It's a waste of time. Nowhere in the book do we ever see the Haggadah actually used by a Jewish family. What a waste. If you want a lot of superfluous sex and violence, then this book is for you.

Anonymous said...

Those who enjoyed People of the book should also read 1. "The red tent" by Anita Diamant. "A remarkable combination of historical research and biblical story revealing the traditions of ancient womanhood."
2. "The woman who laughed at God" by Jonathan Krisch. "The untold history of the Jewish people.A celebration of the Jewish faith in all its diversity."

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