Review: Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book

For book lovers who are fascinated by the intricacies of gold leaf and vellum as well as the modern forensic techniques that allow experts to restore these precious, old manuscripts, Geraldine Brooks' new novel, People of the Book, is like CSI: The Rare Book Version.

A vivid trip through the splendors of early bookmaking, People of the Book is a suspenseful yarn about Jewish history. It's based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah, the Hebrew holy book that was made in Barcelona around 1350. It escaped the Spanish Inquisition, endured the Nazi occupation of Europe and miraculously survived the Serbian assault on Sarajevo 10 years ago. The Haggadah is incredibly rare because it's a sumptuously illustrated manuscript from a time when many Jews believed any images were against God's law.

But - and this is crucial - beneath the novel's surface of intrigue and artistry, it's really quite simple and sentimental. People of the Book is not much more emotionally complex than Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Manuscript.

I don't mean to badmouth Nancy Drew, and if you read People of the Book with her in mind, you're likely to enjoy the novel. But you would expect something deeper from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Brooks' last novel, March, which won the Pulitzer, was also an exercise in historic and literary reconstruction, filling in the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's novel, Little Women.

Brooks was a Wall Street Journal correspondent, and it shows. She's a tremendous researcher, and she re-creates 19th-century America or 15th-century Venice in rich detail. But in both novels the period settings drape a very modern melodrama.

People of the Book, for example, follows Hannah, a rare book expert, as she restores the Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Whenever Hannah encounters a puzzling item - a blood stain, a saltwater mark - the novel flashes back to a crucial moment in the manuscript's life. As a result, the story is an interlocked series of little mysteries that unfold over the course of the manuscript's 700-year history.

But as this history unfolds, Brooks' characters fall into obvious types. The Haggadah is saved at different points by enlightened Muslims. And these Muslims are invariably wise and gentle and self-sacrificing and long-suffering -- they're all saints. Put too many saints in a novel, and you get a thin fictional universe. Similarly, the Haggadah is often threatened by anti-Semites who try to destroy it. But the bigots we meet in People of the Book are never just workaday folk, the kind who manned the Nazi death camps. Instead, one is a deranged, paranoid syphilitic, another is a self-loathing, alcoholic priest -- in short, average people don't foment prejudice here. Only villainous monsters do.

On top of this, the women through the ages who protect the Haggadah, like Hannah herself, have their troubles but they are all gutsy, intelligent, resourceful and brave. It's not just that they're heroines - they're contemporary feminist heroines. In medieval Spain. Or 15th century Venice. At one point in 1940, for instance, a young Bosnian woman realizes the Nazis are evil because they oppose "diversity." Diversity is a fairly recent, multicultural ideal; I doubt anyone in 1940 thought in terms of diversity. Racial purity or tolerance, yes; diversity, no.

The book parts of People of the Book are fascinating. The people parts - those are rarely convincing.

This review was broadcast on KERA-FM and also appears on its website.

January 15, 2008 9:23 AM | | Comments (1)



I have been a very big fan of Geraldine Brooks since the release of Year of Wonders which lead me to read March. Brooks is both a great novelist and a talented reporter as well. A week or two ago I got the chance to chat with her about the release of People of the Book for my blog, Loaded Questions. We talked about her history as a reporter, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the similarities between herself and Hanna Heath, the central character of People of the Book. You can read my enter Interview with Geraldine Brooks here.




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