"People of the Book," an intricate game of a novel
Geraldine Brooks' "People of the Book" is an intricate game of a novel about mighty serious subjects, posing mysteries around a curious manuscript that has barely escaped destruction.
Seattle Times book critic
"People of the Book"
by Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 372 pp., $25.95
In her fiction, former war correspondent Geraldine Brooks has taken on England's Bubonic plague outbreak of 1666 ("Year of Wonders") and the American Civil War experiences of an ineptly do-gooding Yankee clergyman ("March" — Brooks' richly deserving Pulitzer Prize-winner in 2006).
So it might make sense for her to lighten up a little in her third novel. After all, once you've trekked through war and plague, where else is there to go?
Well, there's always ethnic cleansing and book-burning.
"People of the Book" is an intricate game of a novel about mighty serious subjects. It poses mysteries around a curious manuscript that has barely escaped destruction (based on the true case of a Hebrew codex known as "the Sarajevo Haggadah"), and it delves deeply into the arcane profession of book preservation.
The novel touches down in many more places than "March" or "Year of Wonders": 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Venice, 20th-century Sarajevo. In reaching so widely, it sometimes dilutes its own power. But this is an ambitious work, exploring half a dozen far-flung worlds.
Hanna Heath, the voice of the book's framing narrative, is Brooks' appealing guide through this complex story. An Australian book conservator who doesn't go in for false modesty ("I'm great at what I do"), Hanna is nevertheless surprised to be offered the chance to examine the newly resurfaced 15th-century Sarajevo Haggadah, to establish its authenticity and make sure it gets the care it needs.
She's surprised because she knows she's not the foremost expert in this particular field. Both her mentor (an Austrian) and her most gifted colleague (an Israeli) are better qualified. But in the context of the 1990s Balkan wars, an Australian isn't nearly as inflammatory as an Austrian or Israeli would be in doing work on a "lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind" — a manuscript that, furthermore, was twice saved from the flames by Bosnian Muslim librarians, first during the Nazi occupation and then during the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo.
The Sarajevo Haggadah provides the pleasurable drama in Hanna's life (as does Bosnian Muslim librarian No. 2, with whom she instantly falls into bed — not the best narrative move on Brooks' part). Less pleasurable for her is her contentious relationship with her mother, an eminent surgeon in Sydney who disdains her daughter's profession, appearance and general character.
The battle of wills between mother and daughter provide the novel's strongest narrative component. But it's the Haggadah that provides its structure. On Hanna's close examination of the manuscript she finds evidence — an insect's wing, a wine stain, a white hair, a saltwater stain — giving clues to the book's provenance.
"By linking research and imagination," Hanna says, "sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book."
Still, it isn't Hanna but Brooks, moving backwards through time and taking freedoms Hanna can't take as a scholar, who imagines each chapter in the Haggadah's creation and its passage from hand to hand, history scarring it each step of the way.
"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again," one of Hanna's colleagues points out about this manuscript created in Spain at a time when Christians and Jews lived in relative harmony.
"Everything's humming along: creative, prosperous," he says. "Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists ... same old, same old. It seems to me the book," he concludes, "bears witness to all that."
Brooks may be spelling out her message a little too explicitly here, and the way her imagined histories interlock can be a tad too schematic. But she does a sterling job of reminding readers how art objects — no matter how damaged or fragile — link epoch to epoch and world to world, putting the conflicts and follies of our own time into context.Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.
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