People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
I usually don’t like poems about writing poems, or songs about
writing songs. Barry Manilow may “Write the Songs,” but he doesn’t
have to bore me with the details. And I am especially apprehensive
about a book in which the main character is . . . a book!
But Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book, has a Pulitzer
Prize to her credit — for her novel March — so if anyone could write a
page-turner about turning pages, she is the person to do so. And
she delivers the goods in this fascinating and well-paced account of
the Sarajevo Haggadah.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, with a mysterious history. This
14th-century manuscript contains an account of the Passover, with
illuminations in the style of Christian manuscripts – done at a time
when illustrations were all but unknown in Jewish religious texts.
The origins of this work remain unclear, but its survival presents
other enigmas. How did this extraordinary object make its way from
the Iberian peninsula to Sarajevo, and survive the destructive grasp
of Inquisitors, Nazis and other book-burners and oppressors – not to
mention more recent events, such as the siege of Sarajevo?
Brooks has some facts at her disposal, but her book relies mostly on
her fertile imagination. Her story begins with the arrival in Sarajevo
of Hanna Heath, a modern day expert in book conservation who is
called from her home in Australia to prepare the Haggadah for
presentation at a newly rebuilt museum. Moving back and forth from
this contemporary vantage point, Brooks intermixes several
extended flashbacks to earlier incidents in the history of this puzzling
book, and depicts the series of chance events and heroic acts that
led to the Haggadah’s survival over the centuries.
Hanna Heath is a brilliantly realized character, with lots of Aussie
color thrown in for good measure. Here is her acerbic take on the
English art scene: “The art world in England is an absolute magnet
for the second sons of threadbare lords, or women named Annabelle
Something-hyphen-Something who dress in black leggings and burnt
orange cashmeres and smell faintly of wet Labrador. I always find
myself lapsing into Paleolithic Strine when I’m around them, using
words I’d never dream of using in real life, like cobber and bonza...
Mum has always affected a kind of plummy, haut-Pom accent I
associate with her snobbery. When I was little, she’d actually wince
when I talked to her. ‘Really, Hanna, your vowels. They sound like a
lorry has run over them.’”
You get the idea. Hanna is strident, opinionated and a bit blustery –
but never boring. Ah, I wish all of the characters in People of the Book
were as well constructed as Hanna and her mother. But the
historical interludes that make up around half of Brooks’ story are
hardly so engaging. Her characters in these sections of the book
often come across as stick figures, who are assigned predictable
roles as heroes and villains. But when Brooks returns to Hanna, she
writes better, and her story takes on more life.
Brooks makes up for these defects by demonstrating her mastery in
the pacing and structure of her novel. And her historical research is
acute and fascinating without getting in the way – as one sometimes
encounters in historical novels, where arcane details can distract
from the narrative. Not so with People of the Book. Even a book
conservator is as exciting as a master-spy by the time Brooks has
worked her magic.
Novels dealing with inanimate objects may strike you as bit of a
snooze. Some people swear them off after a few pages of Henry
James The Golden Bowl — they never get far enough into the text to
learn that the bowl only makes a cameo appearance. I can’t make
the same claim here: the book does take center stage in this novel,
but it lives up to the starring role. Give Brooks’ story a chance – it is
definitely a page-turner about a page-turner.
This review was originally published on Blogcritics