Friday, February 07, 2014
People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks
I have a love/hate relationship with the novels of Geraldine Brooks. I loved Year of Wonders, until the ending and then I hated it--felt that Brooks veered violently off-course. I loved parts of March, but loathed other parts. However, I uniformly and without reserve loved People of the Book, which I finished last night.
For starters, People of the Book is my favorite kind of historical novel (the kind that Rutherford, Mitchner, and Uris write/wrote). It fictionally traces the story of a real object, in this case an illustrated Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, that was created in 14th century Spain and ended up in Bosnia. The Haggadah came close to being destroyed many times--during the Spanish Inquisition, during the Nazi invasion of Europe, and during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The main character, Hanna Heath, is an ancient documents specialist from Australia who is hired to evaluate and restore the book when it surfaces during the Bosnian War, but her story is interrupted regularly as Brooks traces the book back in time as Hanna finds clues within the manuscript that tell its story and that of the people who loved it, saved it, created it, and treasured it. These include a white hair, wine stains, blood stains, water stains, and a butterfly wing.
I found each story along the journey to be stand-alone intriguing as well as integral to the overall story, and I loved visiting the various locales: 1990s Sarajevo, 1940 Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1609 Venice, 1492 Tarragona (Spain), 1480 Seville.
Here's the map from the beginning of the book, which I found informative and lovely and referred to regularly whilst reading.
I especially liked the overarching theme that Brooks developed around the stories of people who encountered the Haggadah over time--some were Christians, some Jews, some Muslims, but regardless of their religion, they respected the artistic achievement of the book and the culture significance it carried.
In People of the Book, Brooks celebrates what we share as humans, rather than what tears us apart when we identify solely with our tribe. My only quibble--and with Brooks I always seem to have a quibble--I really had a hard time swallowing the character of Hanna's mother. She reminded me so much of Leonard's mother on The Big Bang Theory that I just couldn't take her seriously as a real character. Other than that, great book--great writing--great interrelated stories that move through time.
To further whet your appetite, here is an illustration from the Sarajevo Hagggadah that figures into the plot of the story:
This book is part of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.