People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks comes up with great ideas for her books. Year of Wonders is set in a small village cut off from the world by the plague. March follows the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women as he joins the army during the Civil War. One of my book clubs read the first and found it disappointing in spite of its intriguing premise; they declined to read the second when it was suggested. Our disappointment may have been in part a result of the tremendous hype around Year of Wonders. Most of us expected something pretty spectacular, so what seemed pedestrian might have struck us as rather good if we hadn't known anything about the book.

I had thought I would not read another of Brooks's books, but then I heard her speak last year about the genesis of this, her newest book. It sounded marvelous: based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, perhaps the greatest treasure in that beleaguered city. A holy book used in the celebration of Passover, this particular Haggadah dates from the 15th century. Most unusual are its illustrations which depict the figures of people from the holy stories, such as Adam and Eve, this during a time when it is thought that Jewish artists, like Muslims, believed that creating images of people was forbidden.

What drew Brooks to the story was that during the 1996 bombardment of Sarajevo, the book was rescued—under fire—by a Muslim librarian. Nor was he the only person of another faith to save the book at risk of his own life. An inscription in the book shows that a Catholic priest during the Inquisition had approved the book as containing no blasphemy, though it clearly did, and by doing so saved it from burning. Thus the book symbolises the multi-ethnic harmony and cooperation that Sarajevo had been known for and which made the city's fate during the Serbo-Croatian war all the more heartbreaking.

The title is the Muslim term Ahl al-Kitab, which describes non-Muslims whose faith includes a book of prayer. The Qur'an specifically mentions Judaism and Christianity, though other faiths have been added to the list as well. Those designated as people of the book are, according to Islamic law, inferior to Muslims but superior to other non-Muslims, and thus candidates for tolerant treatment.

As Brooks further investigated the art of book conservation, she learned that breaking apart the folios in order to restore the cover often brought to light small bits of things caught in the folds, and that these could be used to discover more about the book's history. She uses fictional items from the Haggadah's binding to anchor her imagined stories about the book's past, while using an overarching narrative about Hanna Heath, a young Australian who is brought to Sarajevo to restore the book's cover in 1996, when the city is still so unstable that she must be escorted by armed guards.

A great premise, excellent plotting, marvelous settings ranging from Venice to Seville: I thought this was going to be one terrific book. And it is good. Brooks's prose is very readable, and the pages flew by for me. Her obviously extensive research is fairly well integrated into the story. The historical narratives are credible and engaging, more so than Hanna's story.

What kept the book from being a “wow” read for me was that, although the characters seemed real enough to me as I read, they did not touch me. The one exception was a scene when the librarian in Sarajevo lambastes the U.S. and other western nations for ignoring the city's plight. Strong emotions honestly expressed: finally I was moved.

As readers, I believe we can tell when a writer has plunged wholeheartedly into the emotional life of his or her characters. As a writer, I find this difficult to do. So I celebrate Brooks's achievement as a good read and a thought-provoking one.

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