Before you give yourself up to the sweep and scope of People of the Book, the captivating new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, grab some paper and a pen. You’ll be glad you did. From the opening chapter to the closing page, Brooks crams so many people, places, and events into her ambitious and intricate account of a Jewish prayer book that she leaves you longing for a scorecard.
Brooks starts out easy. It’s 1996 and Hannah Heath, an expert in rare books, has been lured from her laid-back life in Australia to Sarajevo, “where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago.” Hannah’s job is to conserve and analyze the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest illuminated Jewish texts. The ancient manuscript, filled with images so rich and beautiful that it is now a priceless artifact, has appeared, vanished, and reappeared numerous times in its 500-year history. Its most recent rediscovery in war-torn Sarajevo, where a Muslim librarian has saved this Jewish holy book, is nothing short of a miracle.
Hannah, at age 30 a cranky and demanding loner, is the first expert to handle the Haggadah in more than a hundred years. Though uneasy in the bombed-out city, she’s ecstatic at the chance to preserve the rare volume:
As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.
The Sarajevo Haggadah lives up to her expectations. Decorated with pigments made from silver and gold, saffron, malachite, and crushed lapis lazuli, it’s a thing of extraordinary beauty. It also contains startling anomalies — paintings of the human form done at a time when this was considered the highest sin, and the depiction of the earth as round, drawn when such a radical concept was punished by torture and death.
Though Brooks’s book is a work of fiction, the Sarajevo Hagaddah itself is quite real. The author first learned of it during her stint covering the Bosnian war for The Wall Street Journal. When the manuscript suddenly resurfaced, speculation about where it had been, and how and by whom it had been saved over the course of its lifetime, fueled her imagination. With scant information to get in her way, Brooks was free to blend existing fact with her own lively fancy.
Though Hannah gets the story started, the series of tiny artifacts she finds in the binding of the Haggadah soon send us across the Continent and back in time. A fragment of an insect wing leads to Sarajevo in 1940. Right away, we reap the benefit of Brooks’s gift for quickly setting a scene:
The wind blew across the Miljacka river, hard as a slap. Lola’s thin coat was no protection. She ran across the narrow bridge, her hands thrust deep in her pockets. On the other side of the river, a set of rough-hewn stone stairs rose abruptly, leading to a warren of narrow lanes lined with shabby apartment buildings.
Later, with equal deftness, Brooks lets us share a character’s yearning for a long-lost home:
We do not feel the sun here. Even after the passage of years, that is still the hardest thing for me. At home, I lived in brightness. Heat baked the yellow earth and dried the roof thatch until it crackled.
And here, with the sparest of imagery, Brooks walks a desperate boy onto a frozen river, then breaks your heart:
Embracing his little sister, he stepped off the bank, onto the ice. He walked to the center, where the ice was thin. His sister’s head lay on his shoulder. They stood there for a moment, as the ice groaned and cracked. And then it gave way.
Each object that Hannah finds within the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah acts as a springboard for Brooks to tell a new piece of the tale. A missing decoration on the manuscript leads to fin-de-si?cle Vienna, where German nationalism is on the rise. Wine stains on the parchment point to the Inquisition in Venice. A white hair reveals a series of surprising twists in 15th-century Spain. In between historical chapters, Hannah’s own life takes center stage. A love affair, a family secret, and a betrayal send the story spinning.
Gathered together, the historical vignettes form a patchwork of information, not just about the manuscript’s journey, but also about the long and tangled history of persecution among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Brooks’s knowledge runs deep. She packs each page with history and context, then illuminates them with emotion.
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as the seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.
That’s Hannah explaining her approach to work, but it could just as easily be Brooks explaining the genesis of the novel.
For the most part, she — and Hannah — succeed. But a story made of fragments leads to a fragmented story. Though Brooks works hard to bring life and urgency to each new setting and cast of characters, the constant change can be jarring. The choice to move backward in time, from the present day to the Haggadah’s creation in Spain five centuries ago, makes for a sometimes arduous read.
So keep that pen and paper handy. Write down names. Mark down dates. Using a map will probably help. How the lives of the people of the book merge, diverge, and reconnect forms the affecting arc of this ambitious and accomplished novel.