Wednesday, 27 April 2011
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Synopsis: Hanna, a book conservationist, is hired to complete some restorative work on a Haggadah, an ancient Jewish text, in late 1990s war-torn Sarajevo. We follow Hanna as she finds clues about the past of the book and Brooks allows the reader to see the meaning of these clues. Covering the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, Tito's freedom fighters and Catholic Venice, the book has a long historical sweep and covers many eras.
I was really impressed with this book, with the writing, the content, the research that had clearly gone into it and the characters. Brooks managed to suck me in to all of the different time periods and characters without making anything feel disjointed or abrupt. My personal favourite was the section where the book is in danger of being burned under Papal Inquisition and it falls to a Catholic to save it.
In fact, both Muslim and Christian characters did as much to save the book as Jewish ones, and one of the messages of the book seemed to be multi-faith tolerance. In her afterword, Brooks explains that these sections were actually based on the real life history of the Haggadah, and I found that pretty inspiring. We hear so much about different religions hating each other that it's always nice to find a story of people going beyond religion and putting differences aside.
The characters were all well written and vivid. Hanna was probably my least favourite as she felt a bit like an 'everyman', without many defining characteristics of her own. The characters from the historical sections were far more interesting - like Lola, a Jewish teenager turned rebel freedom fighter turned undercover Muslim and a Rabbi in Venice with a secret gambling habit. The real strength of the historical sections is that Brooks gave us enough hints to suggest that life had gone on before and after; like she was telling a part of a continual tale rather than making up stand-alone events. I think that's really difficult for a writer to do.
When I was looking at the reviews for this book on Amazon, lots of people complained that Hanna never got to find out all that the reader did. But for me, this was one of the strengths of the book as it would be impossible for her to work all of that out from the clues without some kind of paranormal interference, which would ruin the credibility of the book.
Verdict: Would definitely recommend this one.
Score: 5 out of 5