In ‘People of the Book’ Geraldine Brooks speaks to the reader through the experiences of Dr Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in the conservation of medieval manuscripts. Receiving a phone call in the early hours of the morning, Hanna finds out that not only has the ancient Hebrew prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah reappeared, but also that she has been recommended for the restoration job.
Created in medieval Spain, the Haggadah was prized as much for its beauty as for its unusual inclusion of lavish illustrations at a time when Jewish belief was strongly against the making of images. Its unexpected survival across the centuries and the fact that no conservator had handled the manuscript for a century, raises so many fascinating questions that Hanna cannot resist the call to answer them. In this way a literary mystery is born, stretching throughout the world and across time.
After introducing Hanna to us in Sydney in 1996 at the time of the Haggadah’s recovery, Brooks whisks the reader away to Sarajevo. Here we uncover more about the techniques of book conservation, the dramatic and violent history of the Jewish culture, current European conflicts, and gain insight into Hanna’s often strained relationship with her mother. This is an ambitious amount of ground to cover in the introductory chapters, and at times the push to bring the reader up to speed on all these things threatens to overtake the overall pace of the plot. While we learn about Hanna through her internal dialogue, her interactions with others, and the obvious dedication she applies to her work, it takes some time to really get comfortable with her character. She does become more believable as the story moves forward, and perhaps just like the methods used to authenticate and restore a book, the process of unlocking hidden secrets cannot be rushed.
From here the plot unfolds in interesting fashion, with Brooks travelling us backwards in time to the birth of the Haggadah, with regular visits back to Hanna’s analysis in 1996. From Sarajevo in 1940, to Vienna in1894 and 1609, to Tarragona in 1492, until we arrive at the start of all things, Seville in 1480, the reader is immersed in the dramatic and often tragic lives of those who are touched by the book. The only difficulty with this movement backwards and forwards through geographical locations and different periods throughout history is that it can be difficult to keep track of where you are in relation to the prior period and to remember the interactions and linkages between characters which often stretch across the ages.
Brooks immerses us so completely in the lives of those who have a role in protecting and in making the Haggadah that it is frustrating to be cut off from them at the end of each chapter. Perhaps this is just reader greed, but it is always a bittersweet position to be left wanting more, especially given the intervening gaps that Brooks deliberately leaves in the life of the book. Just like those who came before, even Hanna’s personal story is impacted by her work with the book. As she works to solve the mystery of the Haggadah by unlocking the clues left by its previous handlers, she finds her own life is served with equal measures of drama and joy.
This is a wonderfully ambitious and completely captivating novel. Geraldine Brooks is most obviously a highly skilled author, capable of enticing the reader with a swirling, heady fragrance of words that envelopes and enfolds as we enter the rich world she creates. ‘People of the Book’ reminds us that beauty and art have the ability to transcend cultural differences, survive the violent passage of human history, and connect us all across the wide divide of time.