Book review: People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The story begins in 1996 with Hanna Heath, a book restorer, who is under UN guard as she restores this remarkable book, the Haggadah, which has escaped burning and discovery throughout its existence. As Hanna uncovers clues to its past, Brooks takes us back through time and imagines what might have happened, through the forensic clues that Hanna finds. People of the Book spans centuries – Seville 1480, Tarragona 1492, Venice 1609, Vienna 1894, and ultimately back with Hanna in 2002.

It is a kind of literary mystery, told in the first person narrative. This gives fascinating insights into what life might have been like. Brooks gives a portrayal of some harrowing lives, and times, in history. Brooks’ writing is pure joy – descriptions are rich and conjure up places, people, feelings. The chapters on the ‘people of the book’ are like short stories within the book, layering to give a picture of the history of the book, but with wonderful character portrayals and insights. The alcoholic priest and the book’s illustrator are both so vivid, they will remain with me.

Hanna is the protagonist, and Brooks puts her through her paces. Hanna is at one level a brash, straight talking Aussie, but she has a vulnerability that is very touching. The first person narrative allows us to observe the world as she sees it, but Hanna is a good observer of people (as well as in her career as a book restorer), and this thoughtfulness I enjoyed very much. There is tension between Hanna and her mother, a successful career-driven, feminist, neurosurgeon, and this plays out during the book.

Brooks gives us major themes to think about as a reader. All the chapters concerning the people of the book are in places of conflict, and the persecution of the Jews runs through the book. Also are love, loss, friendships, and of course parent-child relationships.

The underlying story, Hanna’s story, and that of the Haggadah runs around these chapters on the people, and ultimately comes together in 2002, with an unexpected twist, which gives a resolution to the People of the Book that I was not expecting.

People of the Book is an absorbing, delightful read.

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