People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

It’s not often you come across a book so unabashedly for book people. People of the Book is for the type of reader who picks up an old, dusty volume and feels it has an unmistakable aura about it. Other people, however, think I’m a weirdo.

As I found out in the first 50 pages or so, a story that devotes so much verbage to the craft of restoring and analyzing antique books is difficult to render exciting even to me. But eventually this novel comes together as a sophisticated chronicle of European Jewish persecution and a meditation on art in general, shaped in the Pulitzer-winning prose of Geraldine Brooks.

Of the books Ive read so far this year, youre looking at the front runner for prettiest cover.

Of the novels I've read so far this year, you're looking at the front runner for prettiest cover.

Hanna Heath is a restorer of antique books who is called in to Bosnia for a job of monumental importance. She has to repair the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Medieval Jewish book that has survived against some rather heinous odds. The political situation is about as delicate as the book itself. Sarajevo in 1996 is hardly a safe place for such an artifact, and Hanna was selected for the work because as an Australian, she’s pretty far removed from the conflict and won’t raise any protests from the interested parties.

Not that she isn’t highly skilled and passionate about her task:

By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book. I can figure out who they were, or how they worked. That’s how I add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge… And there were so many questions about the Sarajevo Haggadah. If I could answer just one of them…

As she discovers odd details within the haggadah’s pages, like a wine stain and a butterfly wing, she begins to trace the travels of the volume through history. Thus you’re launched into vivid narratives of the haggadah’s past.

The first flashback is also in Sarajevo, a setting of the Holocaust so far east it seems a previously unilluminated background. The rest of the haggadah stories chronicle Jewish persecution back until the Spanish Inquisition, adding to the intended effect that it’s wonder the tome (which actually still exists) was not lost, eroded away, or destroyed in its numerous close calls. The book of course is a metaphor for the survival of the Jewish tradition, which similarly faced eradication in Europe more frequently than is often realized.

With each generation, the appreciation of Jewish culture and art draws so many sacrifices for the haggadah, and greed and brutality repeatedly demands them. Unexpectedly, Muslims and Christians count among the book’s prominent saviors.

The fact that the haggadah contains images makes it one of a kind. Theres an even deeper enigma concerning who might have made these images.

The fact that the haggadah contains images makes it one of a kind. There's an even deeper enigma concerning who might have made these images.

Getting Between the Lines

Brooks’ former career as a foreign correspondent (particularly in Bosnia) makes her one of the few people who could convincingly tell this story. Readers of her March and Year of Wonders can expect her obsessive attention to historical detail and atmosphere once again. Here, her astonishing amount of research is packed so tight that the very covers of the book could spontaneously burst open and belch out “Ustashe!” “Ketubah!” “Zanni!” “Hoch-und Deutschmeister!”

Which brings me to an important point. The key to enjoying People of the Book is in weathering its assault of italicized apocrypha. Beginning a new chapter means having to acclimate oneself to a whole other time period, culture, set of customs, and obscure terminology. It may become more intimidating than exciting. Granted, Brooks doesn’t talk down to you and explain most of the Slavic, Hebrew, Austro-Hungarian, etc. cultural touches, and for the sake of smoothness you wouldn’t want her to. All the same, each casual mention of a dzezva was for me a poke in the forehead.

This is a novel I kept setting aside. Not entirely its fault (under certain conditions, one can be distracted even from books that are quite good), but I would have read People of the Book without interruption if I’d felt there were more to pull me through it.

Hanna’s research plot is a nice waystation between the haggadah tales, but it lacks urgency. The real tension, I’d think, would lie in keeping the book intact, not merely uncovering where it’s been and making guesses as to how it got there.

Thankfully, this is a rewarding book if you stay with it. Hanna becomes especially sympathetic as her quest for knowledge begins to shape her into a more directed and compassionate protector of art. Also, once the haggadah’s mystery is mostly solved, it raises some rather striking questions about the value of a book. Die-hard bibliophiles will find it hard to resist.

Read this one if

…you’ve ever perused an antique bookshop and felt an intense curiosity about a certain cracked, leatherbound volume there — what it had lived through, what hands had touched it, and what the book had meant to the owners of those hands.

People of the Book celebrates this curiosity.

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