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This book is one of the most memorable that I have ever read, concerning a rare-book restorer's discovering more and more about the book's secrets. The audience is introduced to the characters involved in the book's past, shaping the history of the book. 'People of the book' explores Hanna's life in modern times, delving not only into her professional life, which is the main premise of the book, but looking into the emotional aspects of her life, and so she is not only created as a means to an end, but as an end in herself. I enjoyed reading about the differant historical aspects of this book, from being saved from burning in the inquisition, to being hidden from the Nazis, and much inbetween. The characters that we are introduced to are written so well, it is often disapointing when that character's story has been told, in order for the story to progress, as you find that you have formed quite a liking to them. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who loves history, as not only are you reading a fantastic novel, but are you introduced to periods of history that you perhaps have never come across before.
I picked up "People of the Book" in the library after reading and enjoying Brooks' previous novel "March". I wasn't overly hopeful when I saw the cover of the book as it looked a bit girly, however the synopsis sounded interesting.
"People of the Book" follows a book known as the Sarajevo Haggadah on its journey through the ages - why it was made and by whom, and how it survived when many of its protectors did not. This journey starts at its end however and works its way back to the creation of the haggadah in Moorish Spain in the 15th century.
The novel was written in 2008 and is classed as historical fiction although the Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book and is one of the oldest surviving illuminated Jewish texts. Brooks has taken this important text and created a fictional past for it, showing the many conflicts it managed to survive, almost miraculously.
Brooks' protagonist is Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator who is given the opportunity to restore the haggadah in Sarajevo in 1996. The book has just come to light again after being saved from the bombardment of Sarajevo by a Muslim librarian. As Hanna works on the book she finds several clues as to where it may have been throughout its existence, such as an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals and a small white hair.
The novel intertwines Hanna's life and her work tracing these clues with the real history of the book. In this way Brooks moves from Sarajevo in WWII to 19th Century Austria to the Inquisition in Venice and its ghetto in the 17th Century to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th Century and finally to the book's creation in Moorish Spain. The intertwining of these interesting episodes with Hanna's modern day search for answers - both in her life and her work - mean that the novel stays varied and absorbing.
Hanna herself never discovers the full history of the haggadah but her small discoveries are more realistic anyway. In her search for answers in her professional life she also comes across answers in her personal life which begin to change her.
Hanna can come across as a bit irritating and self-absorbed but otherwise is a likeable enough protagonist. The difficult relationship with her mother is well portrayed, although her mother does seem to be a bit of a pantomime villain after a while.
Again, I didn't enjoy the romance element and didn't really see a need for it. Ozren, the Muslim librarian who saved the haggadah most recently is mostly used as a vehicle by Brooks to show the suffering of the Bosnian Muslims and Sarajevo as a whole and the romance just seemed unlikely at best.
I found the explanations of the processes and methods Hanna uses to restore the book quite interesting. Brooks has explained book restoration/conserving in a way that is easy to understand and without being dull.
I thought that the last part of the book involving Hanna was a bit ridiculous and again, not really necessary as my main interest was in the book's past and origins. Hanna's storyline does seem a bit surplus to requirements at times and in the main just acts as a unifying force, tying the different episodes of the haggadah together in a small way.
I enjoyed the strong historical element to this novel and Brooks' obvious devotion to the subject is shown through her thorough research of each time period. I would recommend this book if historical fiction is something you enjoy as it also gives a broad overview of Jewish persecution through the ages.
This review is also posted on Ciao.co.uk under my username.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Published by Harper Perennial books - Oct 2008
ISBN : 978-0007177424
What attracted you to this one?
I have previously read Geraldine Brook's, Pulitzer Prize-winning " March" which was a "Richard and Judy" recommendation a few years ago so the name was familiar but I was not totally wowed by " March" so that alone was not reason enough. The price was reduced to 50p so that was quite a draw as I love a bargain but the cover was appealing ( now I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but it does have a bit of a draw) and finally the blurb on the back meant it found its way into my basket.
About the author:
Geraldine Brooks was born in Australia and grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, and attended the University of Sydney. She worked as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a feature writer with a special interest in environmental issues. She has written three novels "March", "Year of Wonders", and People of the Book which is a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages.
What do other more literary reviewers think?
According to the Independent on Sunday:
"Brooks expertly guides us to the conclusion that the world is made up of only two types of people: those who would destroy books and those who would give their lives to save them. This illuminating novel, like its predecessor, is well worthy of both Pulitzer and prime-time approbation." -
From Publishers Weekly
"...dazzling new novel... Brooks writing at her very best... Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless."
The San Francisco Chronicle;
''...a tour de force that delivers a reverberating lesson gleaned from history.'
Something I found interesting was that there is actually a term " The People of the Book" which is what Muslims call certain other people faith is based on a book. I found this in Wikipedia:
"People of the Book is a term used to designate non-Muslim adherents to faiths which have a book of prayer. The three faiths that are mentioned in the Qur'an as people of the book are Judaism, Sabians and Christianity."
The story of the book:
The author was inspired to write the book having heard the story the Sarajevo Haggadah, The book takes us on a magic carpet ride through history to tell the story of this book and where travelled through the centuries from its creation in Muslim-ruled, medieval Spain, through Inquisition-era in Venice to, late 19th century Vienna, and finally the book survives the Nazi destruction of Sarajevo . The Haggadah is the central element but on the way we meet a variety of colourful characters who have some contribution to make to the history of this ancient text.
I really liked the heroine Hanna Heath who is an Australian and a rare-book expert. The story within the story is based on her relationship with her mother which is somewhat strained. Hanna's mother is a very successful surgeon and cannot understand why Hana wastes her life on ancient books.
When Hanna, examines the priceless and beautiful book one of the earliest to be illuminated with figurative paintings she discovers a few tiny clues in its ancient binding--an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair--she becomes determined to unlock the book's mysteries.
As the story of the book and its amazing journey unravels we learn where these strange finds came from.
The story is a sort of detective story but with fascinating characters and no obvious crime to solve. Some reviewers have compared it to the de Vinci code but not having read that I am not sure how accurate that comparison is.
The story alternates between sections set in the present day with Hanna and those she comes across in her research about the book and also elements of her relationship with her mother and other sections where we meet completely different characters in history who have had some connection with the history of the Haggadah.
At times it took a while to get in to the historical mini stories but as the book moved forward the bits all came to fit together. The story I particularly enjoyed was that of the child artist who drew the pictures for the book.
The author gives us an insight into a time when Muslim, Christian, agnostic and Jew managed to lived in tolerant harmony. The rather graphic pictures of the eras of religious persecution in the story include the Spanish Inquisition, the more recent ethnic cleansing of the Serbs and Jews in the Holocaust. The novel takes us through these horrors almost forcing us to question why religious persecution takes place and why different peoples cannot live in harmony despite having different beliefs. How did this small book survive while human bonds were being torn apart?
Extra bits I found fascinating:
It was obvious that the author knew a lot about book conservation as the detail in the descriptions of Hanna's work was so meticulous.
I found it intriguing to read in the appendix that the author was apparently lucky enough to have witnessed the uncovering of the book in Sarajevo. What an amazing thing to have experienced and no wonder she felt inspired to write this wonderful tale about the history of this small and ancient text.
The book is a work of fiction but the research into the religious turmoil and the bravery of the people known to have protected the Haggadah is so meticulous as is all the other historical detail in the story.
I thought this book was so much better than the award winning "March". The story was more interesting and to me the characters were more believable than in "March" too. I was drawn in to each of the different mini stories very quickly which was a nice change as sometimes when there are lots of mini stories I find I have to read back to keep checking what is happening.
Whenever I read books that have historical elements to them I thank my lucky stars that I was born in 20th century. During the story we read about suicide, murder, child labour, book burning and torture but we also have a sprinkle of, passion love, kindness and self sacrifice. Certainly worth a read in my view as it makes you think and it reminds you of how lucky we are compared to people who are forced through circumstances beyond their control to show immense courage just to stay alive.
Thank you for reading and hope this has been of some interest. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.