People of the Book ~ Geraldine Brooks
Genre: Adult fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books
If you think you have had a hard day, you should run your story by the Sarajevo Haggadah. It has seen worse and Australian rare book expert, Hanna Heath can back up its claim. We first find Hanna in recently war torn Sarajevo in the mid nineties. She has been called away from her museum desk to verify the existence of one of the world’s rarest and most sought after treasures: a small, 15th century Spanish-crafted, Jewish prayer book.
Because Jewish prayer books at the time were not illuminated with the exquisite illustrations often found only in Christian texts, the Haggada’s possession of such pictures lends to its importance, culturally. This unique interest point also allows for a great story line, intertwining the various fetes of escape the book has performed over the centuries following its creation.
Brooks alternates between Hanna’s present day research and century deep segments backward in history, unearthing hypothetical tales of woe and despair as told by various items (a hair, a wine stain, a butterfly wing) found in the book. The inevitable questions of faith, censorship and genocide are woven well into the far-reaching historical escapades and are echoed, albeit to a lesser extent, in the modern day thread.
Over all, this was a fascinating romp through an otherwise gruesome history. It seemed to pick up steam a few chapters in, as I was clued into Hanna’s background with her family and thus better able to understand some of the character quirks, which were distracting before they were explained. The present day characters were well sketched but never fleshed out as well as they could have been. A great amount of depth was put into each of the historical characters in each vignette, though, which caught me surfing through the 1990’s chapters, anxious to pull up another flashback.
I did enjoy People of the Book, in the end, and it left me with a fairly sizable list of dates and places to research a bit deeper. I was told time and time again that the story was a sad one but while it has weepier moments, I would refer to it as poetic or endearing rather than tragic.