Classic Literature / Historical Fiction

Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I really wanted to love this book.  People of the Book is a fictionalized history of a real, and fascinating document, the Sarajevo Haggadah.  A Haggadah is a book that tells the story of Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, unusual for its colorful and detailed illustrations, is believed to have been created as a wedding gift in the 1300s.  It has survived through extremely turbulent times for Jews and other groups, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust to the Bosnian War.  Through all of those times, people hid it and preserved it, until in 2002 it was placed on exhibition at the Sarajevo National Museum.

It is also special in that it was rescued most recently not by a Jew but by a Muslim librarian.  Brooks characterizes this as a symbol of peace among religions and cultures.  This may be a religious document but it is also a work of art and history and can be treasured by those of different faiths.

Brooks actually served as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal during the Bosnian War. At that time, she says, no one knew where the Haggadah was.

This book feels like a story she has long wanted to tell.  She uses a lot of historical fact in her account of the Haggadah, telling us everything that is actually known about the book, from its resurfacing around the turn of the century to its disappearance during World War II.  She includes actual physical anomalies of the book, such as wine stains and an inscription from 1609.  She even builds the story around the actual  illustrations, including one which shows a young African-American woman seated at the table of the Passover seder. This illustration is unusual and experts don’t quite know what to make of it.

The story begins in 1996, when Dr. Hannah Heath, a conservationist from Australia, is called in to prepare the book to go on exhibit in the museum and also to research its history.  As a book-lover I found the details about book conservation fascinating.  Hannah finds various stains, hair and an insect wing in the book, all of which will provide clues to its history.

From there, Brooks goes backwards in time, and imagines the history of the Haggadah at various points, going all the way back to its supposed creation.  The story illustrates a few points repeatedly: first, that throughout history, Jews have been persecuted in horrific ways.  Second, that there have always been some non-Jews who have been willing to aid Jews during these times of persecution.  And third, that the Jewish faith has a great reverence for books.

Unfortunately, People of the Book started to lose  my interest about halfway through.  I finished the book but didn’t enjoy it as I expected.  In fact it reminded me of another book I wanted to enjoy but didn’t, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.  Both are books about fascinating, true, and unfortunately horrific historic times in Jewish history. Sarah’s Key is about the round-up of Jews in Paris during the Holocaust.  I was very grateful to learn more about this incident, even though the story kept me up a few nights.  BUT, as a work of fiction it didn’t hold together because it kept jumping back and forth in time, and because the modern-day story was nowhere near as well written as the historical story.

It may just be me, but I wish writers of historical fiction didn’t feel the need to create some modern-day character to set up their exploration of the history.  It’s just not necessary.  The historical part is much more interesting on its own.

People of the Book differed from Sarah’s Key in that it describes six or seven different times in history.  Unfortunately none of these stories-within-a-story were maintained long enough to hold my interest.  The first few were interesting but as soon as I got into the characters, the story ended.  After the first few I just didn’t get into the characters at all.

My other issue with both of these books was that the modern-day narrator was not likeable, not well-written, and her story was not believable (nor remotely as interesting).  People of the Book lost me with its story of Hannah Heath, not the story of the Haggadah, which is a real shame, because Brooks is an enormously talented writer of historical fiction.  At first, Brooks introduces a fairly interesting subplot of the strained relationship between Hannah and her mother, but then it veers into highly unbelievable melodrama that is not resolved well at all.  Other melodramas ensue, such as Hannah’s unexplored and unnecessary relationship with the book’s caretaker.

I also have to say that the book lost me with torture and violence.  Now, I realize you can hardly write about the Spanish Inquisition or medieval Europe without talking about torture, rape, and violence.  I don’t want anyone to sugar-coat history for me.  I just didn’t want to read about it quite so much.  And I need strong, sympathetic characters to balance out the violence.

I wish Brooks had concentrated more on a few parts of the story rather than trying to cover the book’s entire history.  Or that she had covered it in a more linear way rather than spending so much time in the present.  The Haggadah is a truly fascinating artifact and like Sarah’s Key, I’m glad this book gave me so much information about it.  That’s why I love historical fiction.  I just didn’t love this book.

Brooks has published two very different works of historical fiction, March, set during the Civil War, and Year of Wonders, set during the plague of the 1660s.  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for March, and I thought both were excellent.

You can learn more about the Haggadah’s history and see photos of the artwork at http://www.haggadah.ba/?.  Also interesting is a review of the book at http://www.jewishliteraryreview.com/2008/01/more-on-geraldine-brooks-and-the-sarajevo-haggadah/.

7 thoughts on “Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

  1. I tried reading this years ago and just couldn’t get into it. I shared some of your feelings on the main, present-day character, but I think there’s also something about Brooks’s writing style that leaves me feeling cold. I’m able to recognize many of her passages as being technically beautiful, but they don’t have me wanting to read more or benefit from the reams of research she so clearly does. The only book of hers that I’ve completed is “March,” which I read to kind of test the waters before thinking of a return to “people of the book.” since i didn’t enjoy “march,” though, and given your description of “people of the book,” i’ll go ahead and cross it off my list. great review.

  2. I think People of the Book would have been much more successful had Brooks not included Hannah’s “story”, which felt like a lame attempt to bridge the various fictionalized stories together. Indeed a fascinating larger story, but as a book… not quite. There were numerous flaws in the story, but admittedly, though I clearly did not like the book, some of the stories have stayed with me since reading it. Had it been more tightly written, was less sensationalist about certain stories (and Judaism as a whole) and forsaken the bad Hannah plotline, it would have at least been worthy of mention. Otherwise, it’s just not very good.

  3. I haven’t read this one, but I really enjoyed The Year of Wonders, so I was hoping it would live up! It’s really a sad thing when the historical portions of a book so heavily outweigh the contemporary characters so as to make them uninteresting. This happened to me recently when I read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. That contemporary character was just silly. This one might be a little more balanced, but it’s still a little disappointing. 🙂

  4. I loved “March” but felt very similarly to you here about “People of the Book”–I actually put it down about halfway through and then forgot I had been reading it until I stumbled across it a few weeks later! No need for a modern-day frame–let the history carry the book, and let it shine.

  5. Pingback: Book Review - PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks

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