Geraldine Brooks has been one of my favorite new (to me) authors that I’ve discovered in 2012. People of the Book is the third novel of hers that I’ve read (I’ve previously read Caleb’s Crossing and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March). I think this novel made the book club rounds a few years ago.
In this novel, Dr. Hannah Heath, an Australian rare book conservationist, is commissioned by the United Nations to travel to war-torn Sarajevo in the mid-90’s to examine a 500 year-old haggadah, a book used by Jewish families during their Passover seder. The book had been saved by a Muslim museum curator when fighting in the city threatened to destroy many of the museum’s exhibits.
I have an admiration for people who follow their dream even if it’s to an obscure career that nobody understands. In Hannah’s words, Brooks describes her:
I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account…I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.
As Hannah examines the centuries-old book, she discovers small items embedded in the parchment or the paint of the “illuminations” (illustrations) such as a butterfly wing and a cat hair. With each of these minute items, the novel has a flashback to a time when the book was saved during the continuous battles between Muslims, Jews and Christians. The book’s preservation is credited to members of all three religions. These flashbacks go backwards in time with interludes in the present in between each. The flashbacks end with as many questions as answers, none of them include complete stories, allowing the reader to wonder and imagine what might have happened, and in addition, brilliantly illustrating the concept that not every detail of history is saved or is available to those of us in the present.
During the present day sections, Hannah explains her tense relationship with her mother and ultimately discovers the identity of her father. This is the only aspect of the novel that doesn’t quite ring true. It turns it into a soap opera. I think the novel would have been just as thrilling without this story line.
As with her other novels, Brooks’ attention to historical detail must have been the result of hours upon hours of research. Something that’s difficult to get my mind around. In an afterword, she cites and explains her sources, both people and books. She’s also careful to point out that, though she based some of her characters on some historical figures she encountered, the people in the novel are fictional.