People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me do my work.”

So says Hanna Heath, the protagonist of Geraldine Brooks' novel, People of the Book. It is 1996, and Hanna, an expert conservator of rare manuscripts, has been called to post-war Bosnia to analyse and conserve the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Jewish prayer book. However, this is no ordinary medieaval Hebrew text. The presence of decorative artwork marks it out as an anomaly: 

"The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieaval Spain, was 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 medieaval 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 text to be rewritten."

This priceless and mysterious codex, recently rescued from Serb shelling, represents an unmissable opportunity for Hanna and she sets about restoring the book and learning all she can about its history in the process. During her inspection she discovers a variety of artifacts and debris within its fragile pages -  a white hair, a wine stain, salt crystals and an insect's wing - all of which offer clues to the book's troubled history. Through alternating chapters these objects serve as a vehicle for Brooks to offer us glimpses into the Haggadah's story at key points throughout the book's life. The author presents these self-contained segments in reverse chronological order, with the origins of the manuscript revealed in the final vignette. As Hanna learns the secrets of the manuscript, she is drawn into her own personal family drama too.

I was surprised to learn there is indeed a real Sarajevo Haggadah which Brooks used to scaffold her novel and present us with a speculative account of its history. Today, it is on display in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Little is known of its provenance, but the author has taken what is known and filled in the gaps. Details of its beautiful illustrations can be seen here. The irony that the real Jewish Haggadah was saved from destruction at least three times - twice by Muslim librarians during Word War II and the wars in Yugoslavia and once by a Roman Catholic priest - has clearly provided Brooks with the framework for her fictional history. The result is a narrative that moves to Sarajevo in the 1940s, 19th century Vienna, 15th century Venice, Catalonia during the Inquisition and finally to Seville in 1480. In Brooks' hands, the history of the Haggadah is a tumultuous and bloody one, filled with echoes of religious persecution and brutality.

” … the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. … You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists … It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that.”

The People of the Book makes us question our role in these cyclical world events and one could be left with a rather bleak view of human beings and our capacity to tolerate others. However, Brooks story shows how through the ages people have taken care of the Haggadah, intuitively recognising its worth despite contrary religious beliefs. The novel's ultimate message is life-affirming: how people can do the 'right' thing, even in times of national strife, and humanity can transcend religious and political differences.

“It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” 

I enjoyed everything about this novel and it is certainly historical fiction which educates as it entertains. It illuminates the history of the European Jews in a unique way and although some reviewers find the historical segments a touch overblown and straying into melodrama, I can find no such criticism. The individual stories and characters were so fully drawn I found myself wishing each tale was a full novel in its own right. Brooks has a marvelous imagination and inter-weaves her stories, which by the end of the novel, have joined to become a complete, satisfying whole. It is a lush, multi-layered narrative and I can only imagine the amount of historical research that went into its creation.

I would recommend this to everyone who enjoys 'books about books' as well as fans of general historical fiction. There are lengthy passages which linger over fine details of the book conservator's art, the materials and crafts involved in the Haggadah's creation and the beauty of the prayer book's illustrations. The detailed descriptions will certainly resonate with everyone who loves books and feels a frisson of excitement before delving into an unknown tome to discover the secrets within.

One of the most enjoyable books I have read in quite some time.