Tuesday, January 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My book group’s next choice is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I enjoy Brooks’ writing (particularly The Secret Chord) and I loved the premise of this one.

Hanna Heath is a young book conservationist who is offered a dream job, working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. This is a very old (circa 1350s?) Jewish text, created in Spain, and lavishly illustrated. The survival of the text through the centuries, despite tumultuous wars, pervasive anti-Semitism, transportation across great distances, and ravages of time, is something of a miracle – something of a diaspora in a microcosm. The book ended up in Bosnia. During the Serb shelling that occurred during the Bosnian War, it was smuggled into hiding by a Muslim librarian. And now, it is being evaluated and cared for before it is tucked into a museum for preservation.

Hanna is the main protagonist. She has a sad backstory (dead father, distant, toxic mother). She is very talented at what she does, and takes pride in it, but still fights insecurities because her mother has told her, since birth, that she is a loser. Hanna undertakes the project – and also has a brief affair with the heroic librarian who hid the book. As she sorts out what she can of the mysteries of the Haggadah (who created it, how did it travel across space and time, and who were its saviors?) she also works to sort out her own life.

Interspersed with Hanna’s life are chapters each telling a vignette in the life of the book. Each of these pieces to the puzzle are inspired by little artifacts found in the binding of the book (ie. a butterfly wing) or in wine stains on the parchment, or in the fact that there once were silver clasps on the book but now they are gone.

Reconstructing the history of the book is a wonderful way to pull the story together. Except that I grew a bit frustrated with the choppiness of the narrative. Hanna couldn’t actually know all the details that were presented. And the stories picked up and then dropped. There was essentially no continuity to the lives of the people, except that they had each touched or contributed to the book. This is a great concept for a structure, but I found it very easy to put the book down in between chapters and not particularly compelled to pick it back up. There was more continuity to Hanna’s story. However, the ending, much like the epilogue of Year of Wonders, had a tacked on feeling, one which didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the novel.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book years ago and remember thinking that it was good but not great!

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!