Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book 

By Geraldine Brooks
Penguine Books, December 2008

About the Book

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity by an acclaimed and beloved author. Called a tour de force by the San Francisco Chronicle, this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

My Review

In this 2008 novel by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, we are invited to view a fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. For those who don’t know, a Haggadah is a Jewish religious text used to oversee the Passover seder. Here Ms. Brooks dreams up a fictionalized journey for one of the more famous editions.

Australian antique manuscript expert Hanna Heath is called by the UN to catalogue and conserve the newly resurfaced 15th century text. This Haggadah is different than most in that it’s intricately illustrated and is one of the oldest known copies in existence. As Hanna carefully unlocks the mysteries the book holds, she finds a series of artifacts—part of a butterfly’s wing, a white hair, a red stain—that gives her clues to the book’s incredible journey.

Interspersed with Hanna’s story are flashbacks that give the reader insights into how the artifacts link to those who created and cherished the book throughout its history. The physical evidence takes us from 15th century Spain, to 17th century Venice, to the 1990s, and although the evidence itself is fascinating, it’s truly the “people of the book” that Ms. Brooks highlights. As we trace the book’s path, we relive the struggles of the Jewish people across time and space.

I admit I was far more interested in the physical artifacts than in the stories (just a personal preference), but the stories are undeniably moving and the book serves as the bridge to link these disparate groups together. If you are like me and don’t read much in the way of Eastern European history, this book is really eye opening. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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