Only A Novel

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Posted in Books, Fiction, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on February 17, 2008

Well, there’s a perfect example of how life gets in the way of reading books (and reading my favorite blogs, for that matter). I started this book a few weeks ago, but had to put it aside to take care of some annoying curveballs. It’s an easy book, but I only got around to finishing it recently. I wish I were capable of reading during lunch breaks, but I find that those times are rather too short and distracting to get me into a reading groove.

People of the BookI picked up this book because of the hype. I think it’s been on many bestseller lists for a while now. I also heard it being featured, and Brooks being interviewed, on public radio. I usually don’t pick up a book just because it’s on a bestseller list–I actually try to avoid those books–but this one seemed and sounded interesting enough.

People of the Book is a fictional account of the origin and journey, through cities and centuries, of the brilliantly illuminated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to Wiki:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from Creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million.

Sarajevo HaggadahTo me, the Sarajevo Haggadah sounds like a fascinating historical and religious object. It is apparently a small but very striking book. In the Afterword of her book, Brooks says that scholars know little about this magnificent book’s creation and history. It is known, however, that this Jewish book was saved from destruction at least twice–during World War II and during the Bosnian war of the 1990s–by Muslim librarians, Dervis Korkut and Enver Imamovic, who risked their lives by doing so. Inspirational stories during these times, indeed, and therein lies the perfect opening for a promising novel. Brooks, who was formerly a war correspondent, also says in the Afterword that, “The librarians of Sarajevo are a very special breed. At least one of them, Aida Buturovic, gave her life as she saved books from Sarajevo’s burning library…” In her dedication, Brooks says that her book is “For the librarians.” And, appropriately, this is a story about the people of the book–as they represent the countless caretakers who, through the centuries, have ensured the survival of the wealth of the world’s knowledge and traditions that are preserved in books and manuscripts–more than the book itself. The novel’s heroine, Hanna, while trying to write an essay about the Sarajevo Haggadah which was about to be put on public display, thought:

I wanted this one to be different. 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.

In her novel, using made-up clues provided by the codex itself, Brooks tracks the journey of the Haggadah, in a nonlinear manner, from its creation in Spain in the 15th century to its resurfacing and its eventually being placed on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the years following the Bosnian war of the 1990s. Brooks creates various fictional characters appropriate for each epoch and each city that the Haggadah finds itself in. The stories of the two most important characters are told in the first person, while the rest of the story is told in third person. Brooks doesn’t try to provide all the pieces of the Haggadah puzzle, but leaves some space in the story for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

The book is obviously well-researched, and is replete with references to history and religious traditions, as well as chunks of information about the science of manuscript conservation, the art of bookbinding and making parchment, the origins of colors, and methods of chemical spectral analysis, among other things. There were a few instances, though, when I thought that inclusion of some of the detailed information only served to be pedantic. However, I did appreciate to a great extent the history lessons, and what I learned about the Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic religions. A favorite passage of mine is when Brooks makes a political statement through one of the protagonists, Ozren Karaman, and is narrated by the heroine as they walk the war-torn streets of Sarajevo’s Old City:

The khoja of this small mosque was an old man, but his voice carried, unwavering and beautiful on the cold night air. Only a handful of other old men answered; shuffling across the cobbled courtyard, dutifully washing their hands and faces in the icy water of the fountain. I stopped for a moment to watch them. Karaman was ahead of me, but he turned back, and followed my gaze. “There they are,” he said. “The fierce Muslim terrorists of the Serb imagination.”

The story has a strong undercurrent of a subplot which I only became aware of during the last hundred or so pages of the book. As a woman, I really appreciate what Brooks was trying to say and do.

I have to admit, though, that I had mixed feelings about this book for several reasons. I did not like some of the plot devices that Brooks used, and there were times that I felt unconvinced about a character’s motivations; I did not really warm up to any of the characters as they were written. I also thought that more pages should have been spent on the character of Zahra, instead of having so many other characters. I think that the book also had a lot of promise for being an inspiring story which went unfulfilled. And the way the book was ended was just disappointing.

Geraldine Brooks is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March.

(The page from the Sarajevo Haggadah appearing on this post was obtained from Wiki. This site has more pictures of the Sarajevo Haggadah.)

I welcome your comments.

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5 Responses

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  1. bookchronicle said, on February 20, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I have had a lot of reservations about picking this book up and I’ll be looking forward to what other commentators have to say too!

  2. onlyanovel said, on February 20, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Ah, yes, that would be wise. 🙂

  3. DanielleSpinks said, on November 2, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    I read this book earlier this year also and I savoured it over the weeks like a fine wine. I found it fascinating in its detail as well as rich and easy drinking in terms of language: “dusk was the dinner bell for the mosquitos”. The thing is, I found it a bit dijunctive going from 1st to 3rd person, but it seems to work. What do others think? I would like to try this for my own book, but am reluctant to put in the time and effort if it is too fraught. Sante!

  4. onlyanovel said, on November 10, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Danielle, thanks for the comment. I don’t think it bothered me in the least that the novel was written in both 1st and 3rd persons. I think that a really good writer can make it work. Of course, I don’t think it should be done just for the sake of doing it. It should fit the scheme of the novel to be effective.

  5. […] Posts: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks | Only a Novel Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks | Tales from Crazy House People of the Book by […]

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