Holy cow. This book is incredible.
The way it’s structured reminds me a bit of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but People of the Book is less conspicuously a mystery (and, for me at least, more satisfying even though I enjoyed Fingerpost).
The story follows the investigations of a book conservator into the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish religious text that’s survived 500 years of war, pogrom, and book burnings including the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the period of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. Chapters on the conservator’s discoveries in the present are interspersed with chapters tracing back the origins of each clue to a different time period and set of characters for whom the haggadah was meaningful.
Brooks drew me along on this tale from the first page. Her characters are multi-faceted and feel like real people with all of our strengths and weaknesses all rolled up together. I loved the delightful feeling of disorientation I got at the beginning of each of the historical sections, which dissolved into clarity as the light Brooks shined on the setting expanded to illuminate the time and location distinctly. This book also helped me to understand better the appeal that old books—and even just library books, which pass from hand to hand—hold for me. It left me wanting to be a book conservator. Maybe in my next life.
When I closed the book this afternoon, I felt a desire to turn it back over and read it again from the beginning immediately. I won’t do that, though, because I’ve got four other books to read that are due back at the library in two weeks. I love this one, but it will be a while before I allow myself the luxury of re-reading it.
With NaNoWriMo coming up, I’m hopeful that such incredible writing will rub off on me and make my own efforts better than they otherwise would be. A woman can hope.
Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that I’ve read Geraldine Brooks before. Her Nine Parts of Desire was a text in my “Women in Religion” class in college. I don’t remember the book, though, which I find somewhat disappointing, but there was a lot of reading for that class. The details of my college reading are largely lost to me now. *sigh*
A quote from People of the Book:
“It was the cold hour, just before sunrise. I stared at the flames, thinking of blackening parchments in a medieval auto-da-fé; of youthful Nazi faces, lit by bonfires of burning books; of the shelled and gutted ruin, just a few blocks away, of Sarajevo’s library. Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.”