Tuesday, March 10, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

December 30th 2008 by Penguin (Non-Classics)
Paperback, 400 pages0143115006 (isbn13: 9780143115007)

rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my opinion, Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks can do no wrong.  One of my friends said I was positively evangelical about Year of Wonders (also by Brooks), and I loved her novel March as well.

Unfortunately, I didn't love People of the Book.  It's slow.  I know, that's not much of detractor, but I devoured Year of Wonders in a sitting.  I was happy to put People down several evenings in a row, having read only one chapter.

It may be better to take People as a collection of short stories, for in a way, it is.  People tells the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, richly embellishing the largely unknown journey of this holy text.  Hannah is the modern protagonist, a book restorer brought in to authenticate the Haggadah.  With each "clue" that she finds (a drop of wine, a white hair), Brooks invents a backstory to explain its origin.  Thus the book flips back and forth between Hannah (and the plot that she uncovers to steal the Haggadah) and the previous owners of the text.

As ever, Brooks is a dedicated researcher.  She caulks the holes in history so evenly with fiction that you only see a seamless story wall.   In People, Brooks assumes we are going to be as excited about the historical minutiae and the technical aspects of book restoration as she obviously is.  The only thing that made me read through those passages instead of skipping them was her enthusiasm, an affection for these details that shines in her words.

I would recommend reading this book when you can pace yourself, and when you're ready to expend a little brain power.  It's worth your time.

A final note: As a Christian theologian, I took no offense to any of Brooks' renderings of historical religious figures or events.  I don't know if someone from the Jewish tradition would feel similarly comfortable, though I think it likely.

2 comments:

  1. I read March earlier in the year, and just finished Year of Wonders. Both getting my highest rating.

    I wondered about People of the Book. Hmm. Maybe your suggestion about treating it as a collection of short stories is the way to approach the read.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

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  2. Geraldine Brooks is the rare author beloved of both myself and my father. He actually gave me this book as a Christmas present (Second-hand, it turns out. As I ambled through the book I was amused to discover evidence of his prior reading. Given the subject matter it was all very meta.) As for the story, I agree with you. The narrative is best approached as a series of vignettes, and yes, some of them are more compelling than others. But what makes this book relevant and ultimately worth reading is the legacy of the Haggadah itself. Here we have a volatile religious text that winds its way through history at the grace and peril of caretakers of all situations and faiths. It is a physical bond that unites the three major religions whose tensions continue to shape our world. And if that metaphor is a little on the nose, well, that doesn't make it any less valid. I think the real problem with this book is that it appeals to the wrong people. A reader willing to invest herself in the convoluted details of Sarajevo's political history is probably not wanting for a lesson in tolerance, and the cumulative strength of the vignettes is not quite enough to carry the narrative. Fascinated as I was by Brooke’s enthusiasm in the minutiae of her subject matter, it was just a little too much work for the pay-off.

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