Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book Review: "People of the Book"

Geraldine Brooks already has two widely-acclaimed novels to her name (Year of Wonders and March); she completes the hat trick with People of the Book (Viking, 2008), a learned and lyrical work with a legendary and beautiful book as its centerpiece. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a mid-14th century Jewish manuscript prayer book containing rare illuminations of Biblical scenes from Creation through the Mosaic era. Brooks' book traces the Haggadah through time, alternating vignettes of its travels back through the centuries with segments told from the perspective of Hanna Heath, an Australian charged with conserving the book before it is publicly unveiled for display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Using what little is actually known about the book's origins and its survival (practically miraculous many times over), Brooks adds fictional touches to create a possible provenance for the Haggadah, offering her readers a glimpse at the people who owned, rescued, used, craved, and even produced the book. The evidence of her copious research for these sections is obvious without being heavy-handed; it is clear that she has done her homework well to set the scenes she draws, and that she has worked diligently to understand the fundamentals of contemporary book conservation practices (though it should be made utterly clear that the vast majority of book conservators wouldn't be whisked about with UN escorts or be jet-setting round the world quite as much as Ms. Heath does).

I enjoyed this book for its vivid description and exposition in the historical portions, and for the way in which the historical interludes allowed the reader to learn more about the book and its roots than poor Hanna could hope to know, even with all the powerful modern tools at her disposal. There's a message here for those of us who study books as artifacts - there are stories there, real people's stories, and although they may be impossible to get at really, we should think of them.

As Hanna is preparing her essay about the Haggadah to accompany the exhibition catalogue, Brooks has her say "I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful" (pp. 264-265). This book does all of that, and more.

Recommended without reservation - People of the Book is not without a few minor flaws, but they are far outweighed by the excellent prose and fascinating narrative.

For more information on the real story behind the Haggadah, see Brooks' December 2007 New Yorker article, "The Book of Exodus" [pdf], or this page.

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