Friday, September 18, 2009

Fiction Review: The People of the Book

One of the best books I’ve read all year, The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating historical fiction based on the true story of a unique Hebrew book that has survived centuries. The Sarajevo Haggadah, as it’s known, resurfaced in 2001 after many assumed it had been lost in the looting and shelling of the recent Bosnian war. This wasn’t the first time this book beat the odds – it also survived the burning of Jewish books by the Nazis during World War II and the Spanish Inquisition, among other violent historical events. Brooks takes the facts of the Sarajevo Haggadah – which are, in and of themselves, a fascinating story – and fills in the missing pieces with a cast of remarkable characters and a bit of imagination. The main character is Hannah Heath, an expert in conserving old books. The story opens when Hannah is asked to work on the Haggadah when it resurfaces after the war. Here, she inspects the book carefully for the first time:
"I slipped the scalpel under the thread, and the codex eased apart into its precious folios. I lifted the first one. A tiny speck of something fluttered from its binding. Carefully, with a sable brush, I moved it onto a slide and passed it under the microscope. Eureka. It was a tiny fragment of insect wing, translucent, veined. We live in a world of arthropods, and maybe the wing came from a common insect and wouldn‘t tell us anything. But maybe it was a rarity, with a limited geographic range. Or maybe it was from a species now extinct. Either would add knowledge to the history of the book. I placed it in a glassine envelope and labeled it with a note of its position."
Hannah’s work is like CSI for book lovers. While she’s painstakingly caring for the book, she’s also using clues like the insect wing to piece together parts of its history. She consults with various experts to analyze those clues; her work is fascinating. In addition, we get to know Hannah as a person – someone with mother issues and friends and a fair amount of loneliness. Interwoven with Hannah’s story in the present day are the stories of various parts of the book’s history – how those clues came to be in the Haggadah. So, throughout the book, we meet the young Jewish woman and Muslim man who saved the book from the Nazis, the Catholic priest who approved the book and saved it from the pope’s Inquisition in the 1600’s, and even the artist who created the book. It’s a unique and imaginative construct that makes a captivating real-life story even more intriguing. Brook’s writing is, as always, beautiful and moving. She makes you care about the characters and the Haggadah. I loved March, her historical novel about the father from Little Women during the Civil War, and People of the Book lived up to my high expectations. This is also a wonderful book for book clubs. In my neighborhood book group, everyone enjoyed the novel, and it inspired some wonderful discussions on a wide variety of topics. 
372 pages, Penguin
Penguin Audio

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  1. What an excellet review Sue; thanks.

    I have no clue why I have not read this book, because everyone who has blogged about it--loved it.


  2. This was a wonderful book that I absolutely loved. I've recommended it to several people and all have loved it. Brooks The Year of Wonders is also very good.

  3. I cannot wait to read this - I loved Geraldine Brooks other books, and I'm happy that this one is so well-received.

    And thanks so much for stopping by at Books on the Nightstand and leaving a comment!


  4. Anonymous10:13 AM

    I just finished this book and loved it. Your review was really great. I'm glad you liked March - I'm going to add it to my reading list along with Year of Wonders!