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.