Wednesday, March 3, 2010
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The narrator of the book is Hanna Heath, a thirtyish Australian and master book conservator who has the amazing task of studying and preserving the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautiful illuminated manuscript.. [The Haggadah is a real book, and it really was saved by a librarian during the war. If you want to read more about it, and see actual photos, click here. Of course, this story is fictional]. The story begins in Sarajevo in the 1990s, during the Bosnian war. This Haggadah, a priceless relic of Jewish history, was feared destroyed in the bombing of Sarajevo and has resurfaced. As Hanna begins to examine and preserve the book, she finds tiny clues about the book's amazing story. It's not told in chapters, but in sections divided by date and location, with different characters who figure in the history of the book. The historical sections are interspersed with Hanna's discoveries about the mysterious history of the book, and start with 1940s in Sarajevo, then work backward to the book's beginnings, and include tales set in 1890s Vienna, 1600s Venice, the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and 1300s Spain. The sections about the Hanna span the globe -- she travels to Boston, London, Sarajevo, Vienna, and finally Australia.
I've been to hardly any of these places, so I can't testify to the authenticity of the book, but Brooks made them all feel so real; with her background as an international journalist, she does a great job evoking the moods of all these places. I also liked the fact that the protagonist was an Australian. As a reader, it's nice to get an international perspective once in awhile -- so many of the books I read are American or British literature. Some of the historical fiction portions of the book were so interesting, and so realistically created, I wanted to learn more of their stories -- I'd give examples but that might spoil it if you're interested in reading the book, so I'll stop there.
I actually thought Hanna's story was the least interesting part of the book -- she has a terrible relationship with her mother who is so awful I thought she was unrealistic. And there's another development that is supposed to involve a new mystery, a little like The DaVinci Code, which I thought was really unnecessary. I suppose Brooks felt she needed someone to tie all the parts together and bring it into the present day, but I relaly preferred historical sections. It reminded me of another historical fiction by Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which is also told in reverse chronological order about the various owners of a fictional painting and is pretty good.
I also feel compelled to post a warning: this book includes scenes with sex, violence, and really nasty anti-Semitism. However, I didn't find it gratuitous, just part of the nature of the book -- it's about Jews during some really awful periods of history; honestly, if you're going to write about the Spanish Inquisition, it's going to get nasty. But I could understand how it could make some readers feel uncomfortable or want to skim those parts. It's still definitely worth reading.
I really liked this book, and if Gwendolyn Brooks writes any more, I would absolutely read them. I've read two of Brooks' other fiction works: March,winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Year of Wonders; and an excellent non-fiction work about Islamic women called Nine Parts of Desire. I learned a lot about Islam and the Middle East from reading it, and I highly recommend it.