Wednesday, January 16, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I was really looking forward to Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah. I was taken by the fact that Brooks was taken by the Haggadah, a centuries-old richly illustrated book of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

The Haggadah has a fascinating history that Brooks tries to bring to life. She first heard of the Haggadah in the 1990s when she was covering the war in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal. The book had disappeared from the Sarajevo National Museum and people speculated it had been burned or destroyed in the war.

Years later, the book resurfaced. It had been saved by a Muslim and squirreled away in a safe place, far from the mortar shells and sniper fire that made the streets of Sarajevo almost impassable. That was the second time the book, considered one of the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscripts in existence, had been saved. During World War II, the museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, smuggled the manuscript out from under the nose of a Nazi official who wanted to either destroy it or put it in one of Hitler’s personal libraries. Korkut gave the book to a Muslim cleric who hid it safely for the duration of the conflict.

Brooks’ book is really an impassioned plea for people of varying religions to see the humanity in one another rather than the differences. The main character in the book is an Australian rare book expert who is called to Sarajevo to repair the illuminated manuscript. Hanna, as she is called, finds small objects on the parchment pages, such as a single strand of hair, a whisper of salt, a stain that resembles wine, and an insect wing. Brooks than cuts back in time, tracing how each of those objects made their way into the binding of the Sarajevo Haggadah. She takes the reader on a journey, from the manuscript's imagined beginnings in Seville in 1480, to Spain both before and after the Inquisition that resulted in the expulsion or conversion of most of the country’s Jews, to Sarajevo during World War II and during the civil war of the 1990s and to Vienna.

The book does a nice job of showing the history of the Jews and their continued battles with those who would destroy them. Unfortunately, the narrative is uneven and at times I found myself feeling manipulated. I couldn’t believe that this writing came from the same author of The Year of Wonders, one of my favorite books, or the writer of March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. While the sections dealing with Hanna, the Australian book restorer, rang true, some of the other parts felt forced. I had a particularly hard time with the secret vices of a rabbi who lived in Venice in 1609.

I am not the only one who was disappointed by parts of the book. Jerome Weeks, the former book editor of the Dallas Morning News, said People of the Book is not much more emotionally complex than Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Manuscript.”

Perhaps Brooks thought it would be difficult to lure readers to a novel about a religious text, so she chose the most accessible way she could think of to draw in readers. There’s lots of drama and conflict in the book, but very little true tension. I know her publisher was comparing it to Dan Brown’s DaVinci code, since the Haggadah is a codex that is decoded over the course of the novel. I don’t think it is sufficiently thrilling, as in thriller genre, to appeal to that kind of reader.

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