Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Report: The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

If you notice my sidebar "Puppet Opera Library" list, you'll see that The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks has been sitting there for months. Months. I picked up a copy of this book at Oxfam (in which a previous owner had pasted a clipping of the review from the Guardian as well as a map of the locations described in the book) a long time ago in a frenzy of secondhand-book-buying, and then it sat on my shelf while I finished other, more urgent reads. So when I finally got around to reading it last Thursday, I whizzed through it in a matter of days. I'm sorry I gave the impression that it took months to read simply because I haven't updated my sidebar.

The People of the Book is a fictionalized account of the miraculous story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an actual 15th century illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated traditional text that accompanies the Passover Seder. As Brooks explains in the afterword little is known about the history of this holy book, apart from that it has been saved from destruction on at least three occasions, twice by Muslims and once by a Roman Catholic priest. The manuscript itself is small, the binding soiled and scuffed, but its lavish illuminations "as interpreted in the Midrash," created "at a time when most Jews considered figurative art a violation of the commandments" are stunning. The protagonist, antique manuscript conservator Hanna Heath is summoned to Sarajevo in the spring of 1996 to examine the book before it is put on display.

To understand the work of the craftsmen who created the medieval texts she restores, Hanna has made her own gold leaf, is familiar with "the intense red known as worm scarlet…extracted from tree-dwelling insects," and the blue "intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli." Looking closely at the parchment of the Haggadah, she can tell it comes from "the skin of a now-extinct breed of thick-haired Spanish mountain sheep." Hanna believes that damage and wear reveal much about a book and how and where it has been used. As she works on the book, she discovers a fragment of an insect's wing, a single hair, a place for missing clasps, and these prove the springboard for Brooks' expansive story.

Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for her previous novel March, covered the Bosnian conflict as a war reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Like Hanna Heath she is an Australian with a background in Hebrew and Arabic studies, and her extensive research is evident throughout. Perhaps because of this close personal connection, and her sometimes uneasy balance between the real world and the fictional one, she occasionally chokes her storytelling with historical detail; even the dialogue is heavy with exposition (like in television shows where one character greets another as "hello, older brother" or "you're just the guy in the cubicle next to me at our advertising office"). The way the novel is structured as a series of historical interludes within the overarching and undercooked story of Hanna Heath can sometimes create an uncomfortable back-and-forth rhythm. A chapter that ends with Hanna wondering about a stain or a hair is followed by a historical interlude solving that piece of the puzzle; this scheme is not only predictable, but ensures that the reader learns more about the Haggadah that Hanna ever will.

However much I wished Brooks had found a more elegant way to tie up the many strings of her narrative, I nevertheless found the book an engrossing read. Her writing is, at times, luminous and her lush details, at once celebratory and elegiac, bring the worlds and artistry of the ancient Haggadah to life for the reader. This book will appeal to fans of television show History's Mysteries, but also the sort of reader who picks up a book just for the feel of it. And in the age of the all-pervasive e-reader, perhaps we ought to treat all our bound books as precious, and holy.

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