REVIEW: Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

People of the BookIn ‘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.

17 Comments

  1. Jo

    I will look out for it, sounds right up my street. Book reviews are tricky little creatures but you did a good job, not too much given away 🙂

  2. Narnie

    what a fantastic review! Rather than gushing you have practically and completely taken us through the pro’s and con’s. Im thoroughly impressed.

  3. PaulS (gingatao)

    The kind of review every writer dreams about, clear detailed thorough and balanced.

  4. Nico

    Your reviews are great. I’ll keep an eye out for this – I don’t read enough fiction, but I’m interested in book preservation, Lord knows why.

  5. Ricardo

    An excellent review just to second the opinion of those who have already commented.

    This one I would enjoy and this sounds like a far more interesting Haggadah then the one I have read from during Passover. One in particular had a cheesy sponsorship for Maxwellhouse coffee of all things on it. LOL!

  6. Tracey

    Hi Jo – Yeah, despite the problems I pointed out in my review, this is a pretty entertaining read…I love a good literary mystery. I do think though that Possession completely revised the baseline for how good a book in this genre can be. Thanks for your kind words with regard to my review – I don’t like reading those that reveal the entire plot.

  7. Tracey

    Hi Narnie – Thanks for your kind words. I think that sometimes reviews are too subjective, causing them to be too heavy handed towards either the negative or the positive. I always try to be fair and pay respect to the artist who devoted their energy to create the book…CD…film etc.

  8. Tracey

    Hey PaulS – I always find it a little odd reading and for that matter writing reviews. I think sometimes we can get too far away from exploring the idea of whether something is good or whether it is not so good…such a complex balance.

  9. Jo

    Absolutely, Possession is in my top ten favourite list (though interestingly very few people I recommended it to got on with it)…….it is perfect in every way and I was only thinking the other day that I must reread it yet again soon.

  10. Tracey

    Hi Nico – Lovely to see you here again. For some reason I am drawn to these types of books too. There is something that I find completely compelling about literary mysteries, particularly those that are about the life of a book and the people that are involved in its creation.

  11. Tracey

    Hi Ricardo – Glad you liked the review. If you’re interested in beautiful Haggadahs then this is definitely the book for you!

    It is always amazing to hear new examples of the far reaching hands of commercial sponsorship…good old Maxwellhouse coffee hey??!!

  12. Ricardo

    It’s actually a very early form of viral marketing. The story as seems to go along the lines of this: Back in the 30’s the makers of Maxwell House coffee decided to target the Jewish consumer. So the hired some orthodox rabbis to certify that the coffee kosher, which they did. Then once certified such they began printing Haggadahs and distributed them around passover at grocery stores where maxwell house coffee was sold. The ones I’ve seen from the 60s have crude drawings that look like something out of a cartoon from that era and the Maxwell House coffee logo all over the place.

    As a result of all of this, Maxwell House became the coffee to drink for Jewish families all over America post Passover seder. I don’t know if they still make the Haggadahs but the 60s era ones are pure kitsch.

  13. Tracey

    Hi Jo – So glad you’re a fan of Possession, I love it. A lot of people that I know didn’t like it all that much…funny that you found the same thing with people you recommended the book to. Did you see the movie adaptation? I didn’t mind it, but I know it got very mixed reviews.

  14. Tracey

    Hi Ricardo – I had no idea about the Maxwell House marketing campaign linkages with the Haggadah. It’s quite an incredible story really, and I suppose you can see the clever thinking behind the idea at the time. I’m sure some of the Haggadahs you speak of from ‘back in the day’ would be quite the interesting collectable. There is probably someone ‘out there’ who has a dedicated Maxwell House Haggadah collection. As they say, there is something for everyone.

  15. Jo

    So didn’t like the movie, Tracey, it was hopeless.

  16. Tracey

    Hi Jo – I liked the movie, but in comparison to the book…well there is no contest. I tend to treat them as two separate entities. The reason I like the movie may just have something to do with my penchant for Aaron Eckhart…and particularly my love of Jennifer Ehle…she was just so wonderful as Elizabeth Bennet.

  17. Kelly Hewitt

    I have been a very big fan of Geraldine Brooks since the release of Year of Wonders which lead me to read March. Brooks is both a great novelist and a talented reporter as well. A week or two ago I got the chance to chat with her about the release of People of the Book for my blog, Loaded Questions. We talked about her history as a reporter, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the similarities between herself and Hanna Heath, the central character of People of the Book. You can read my enter Interview with Geraldine Brooks here.

    Thanks!

    Kelly

    Kelly Hewitt’s last blog post..Loaded Questions: Interview with Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book

Comments are closed.