Saturday, March 8, 2008

People of the Book

I recently finished Geraldine Brooks’ excellent new novel, People of the Book (Viking 2008). It’s part mystery novel, part historical treatise, all tracing the history of a text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The novel opens with a 1996 visit to Sarajevo by the novel’s protagonist, the Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath, who is sent to the war-torn Balkans to assess the condition of this rare Jewish text. As Hanna tries to determine the illuminated text’s provenance, Brooks intersperses individual narratives that trace the characters whose lives touched the book over the course of five centuries.

Through scientific examination, Hanna discovers much about the book (she comes to conservation from a biology background). There’s blood and wine on the pages, as well as other evidence of its path through the ages. During this fascinating trek we witness the courage of a Muslim who saves the book from the Nazis, and learn about the anti-Semitic world of 1894 Vienna. Tensions in the relationship between a Catholic inquisitor and a rabbi in 1609 Venice introduce more well-developed, compelling characters, while Brooks takes the book’s origins even further back to 15th century Spain and across the Gibraltar to Africa. Brooks brilliantly mixes the past with the present, using Hanna’s story to drive the narrative, revealing the Haggadah's historical record while we learn, with Hanna, the surprising details of her own personal history.
(Below is a map of the Sarajevo Haggadah's journey, from Geraldine Brooks' website)

Some have called this a erudite DaVinci Code, and while that case can certainly be made, this is first and foremost a work of literature, albeit one that’s also a page-turner. Its portrayal of communities and setting is evocative, whether in the Seville of 1480 or in the late 20th century Australian outback, and the character development is extraordinary. People of the Book is a beautifully-told, captivating literary work that reveals much about the power of the written word.

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