Friday, 18 December 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I picked up People of the Book mainly because I thought Year of Wonders was fantastic and I wanted to read something else by Brooks. I enjoyed this too, possibly not quite as much as Year of Wonders, but not far off. It is almost two different stories, although the book of the title connects everything.

The book itself is the Sarajevo Haggadah, which resurfaces in Bosnia after years of being thought missing/lost, and Australian book conservationist Hanna is called in to assess the condition and make any necessary restoration to the book before it is put on display. Approximately half the novel is narrated by Hanna, as she attempts to discover the book's history from the tiny fragments of debris left in the book, such as a butterfly wing, a hair, salt stains and a wine stain. Although these discoveries lead Hanna to some knowledge of the book's whereabouts, a lot of what she concludes is just supposition based on the area she can place the book to, and what she knows or discovers about life at that times, particularly for Jews, since it is a Jewish book. There is also Hanna's personal story that develops over the course of her work with the book, including a turbulent relationship with her mother, but I actually found this the least interesting part of the book.

However, that is only half the story. As readers, we are treated to a lot more information than Hanna is party to and these were the most interesting parts of the book for me. We read detailed accounts of Jewish persecution throughout the ages, and in each account we learn how and why the book disappeared, so that it would be saved for future generations. We move from fifteenth century Spain to seventeenth century Venice, nineteenth century Vienna and finally onto twentieth century Bosnia. Each time, the book is under threat, rescued and then disappears whilst mass persecution of Jews goes on in all its horrific details.

The historical chapters are written beautifully and really evoke the sights and sounds of the day, and the fear that the Jewish population in each place lived under. Most of them are totally fictionalised, but it is easy to imagine them being true and I feel fairly certain that lives were as described for a lot of persecuted Jews, and that people took extreme risks to save precious books and such like. And the book demonstrates with absolute clarity that although methods may change, persecution of minority races, particularly Jewish pogroms are not a new thing and the same situation repeats itself throughout history. The justifications used are different, but it all had the same end. Death and destruction, right up until 1990's Yugoslavia.

It was an interesting read, although I did find myself wishing that Hanna could have known the detailed historical stories that we were told, but I also thought it pushed the boundaries of possibility that she knew as much as she did! I also found it really interesting to read the notes that explained which stories were based on fact and which were totally fictional. The Haggadah does exist, and knowledge about it's creation and whereabouts for large chunks of time are sketchy, to say the least!


farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read any Brooks yet, but have a few of her books here. It sounds as though I should read Year of Wonders first though?

Jo said...

Yes, If I could only recommend one, then it would be Year of Wonders everytime. This is still worth reading though.