Tuesday, January 20, 2015

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I read this book years ago and needed to read it again for book club but was somewhat hesitant since I had read it before, discussed it in another book club and seen the author speak about it.  But my hesitation vanished as soon as I began to read again.  Brooks writes so well - it's no wonder she's a Pulitzer Prize winner.

In some ways, the style reminds me of The Great House by Nicole Krauss, in that it revolves around the story of an object (in that case a desk; in this case the famous illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah) and jumps back and forth in time to explore the history of the object.  But this is just so much better written which makes the jumping back and forth far less confusing.

The novel starts in Sarajevo in 1996 - the UN has invited Hanna, an expert at restoring ancient texts, to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah which will be the centrepiece of a new museum display intending to show how people of different faiths could peacefully coexist and even influence each other's art (despite evidence to the contrary in the recent war).  There she meets the head of the Sarajevo library, Ozren, a Muslim who risked his life to save the manuscript during the war.

As she restores the Haggadah, Hanna comes across several clues embedded in it - the wings of an insect, evidence that it was once held together by clips which are now missing, wine stains, saltwater stains and a white hair.  In different chapters she uses forensics to trace where these items came from.  And in alternating chapters we are taken backwards in time to see where the Haggadah came from - the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona in 1492 and Seville in 1480.  In each of these chapters Brooks weaves a fascinating and realistic narrative with well developed characters who we get to really know though we see them for a very short time.

There are also side stories of Hanna's relationship with her mother, the father she never knew, her mentors in the book restoration trade and Ozren.  While not as compelling as the story of the Haggadah, I also found myself drawn into these stories and anxious to see them through to a conclusion.

I highly recommend reading this book - even if it's not your first time.

No comments:

Post a Comment