People of the Book By Geraldine Brooks
The "book" in question is a Passover Haggadah and the "people" are those whose hands it has passed through over the five centuries of this novel. A Haggadah is a book read each year at the Passover Seder by Jewish families around the world. Each family may have their own favourite version of this book, but all tell the same story - the exodus of the Hebrew slaves who followed Moses, as he parted the Red Sea and led his people to freedom. Passover also refers to the "passing over" of the angel of death as he killed the first born sons of the Egyptians and spared the Hebrews. Whether we believe it or not, this story is read aloud around the table, as families and friends gather for the very long and involved evening meal each year on the eve of Passover.
People of the Book begins for the reader in 1996 as Hanna Heath comes to Sarajevo to look at an ancient Haggadah and to plan its restoration for exhibit in the Sarajevo Museum. What she finds is "The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieval Spain, a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history texts to be rewritten."
The book then alternates chapters between the present day story of Hanna's quest to discover the history of the book, and the book's own history as we are taken back in time, over five centuries, from Sarajevo in 1940, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona in 1492, and finally to Seville in 1480 where the Haggadah originated. We learn the history of the Jews in these cities as we follow the book through the hands of the various people who care for it, and protect it from destruction. The survival of the Haggadah is, perhaps, as miraculous at some times as the survival of the Jewish people.
I found myself learning much about the history of this part of Europe. I knew about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 which sent them wandering across Europe. But not that, in 1565 when Sarajevo was part of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan offered Jews refuge from Christian prosecution - until the Nazis marched in and cleansed the city of Serbs and Jews.
The reader knows in advance of the character Hanna where the book has been. For Hanna the restoration of this book is the job of a lifetime and - and perhaps an opportunity to prove to her mother that book conservation is an important career.
The relationship between Hanna and her mother is a thread that runs through the present day story in the novel - and one that I found somewhat tedious.
The fascinating story of the past saved this novel from being one I'd otherwise have pitched across the room as I found myself impatient with some of Hanna's personal angst. I can see the film-makers reading this - it would make a perfect thriller, a sort of Jewish DaVinci Code. It is certainly a novel that will appeal to readers of The DaVinci Code and The Historian.
Geraldine Brooks is a skilful writer - not exactly subtle - but she can put a good story together. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006 for her novel March.
She found the inspiration for this novel while working as a correspondent in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal. It was not until the end that I realized that the Sarajevo Haggadah itself is a real book and that the history, as well as many of the people who held the book, were historically accurate. It is a good yarn, and a very interesting historical novel.