People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Viking, US$25.95

I’d been ignoring this novel. There are so many reasons to not read a book: time, money, a small fit of intellectual laziness, the fact that nobody at Viking saw fit to send BTWOF a review copy…. The reviews I’d read were intriguing but…. And then I received this email from a friend:

“Well, I’m in big trouble now…last night I started reading People of the Book.  I’m now in that familiar, conflicted position of being deep into a book that calls to me day and night…and yet, there’s clients to see, dog to be walked, other aspects of life to return to. What a pleasure, though, to begin a book and immediately love the new world and new characters.”

That tipped me over the edge and did what none of the publisher PR or reviews had managed and I was out the door to the bookstore.  And now People of the Book went on my personal shortlist for Best Book of the 2008.

Here’s the gist: In Bosnia, during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to save one of his museum’s most precious possessions: a beautifully illuminated Haggadah from fifteenth-century Spain. When the book resurfaces in the mid-1990s, rare-book conservator Hanna Heath , a caustic Aussie loner of a heroine, is offered the job of a lifetime: to prepare the manuscript for exhibition. Brooks uses the clues Heath finds during her restoration of the book – a wine stain, a bit of insect wing, salt crystals, a white hair – to lead the reader back in time to unravel the travels and travails of the manuscript, its evolution, and glimpses into the lives of its people.

I admit that there was a brief moment when I found the flashback format irritating. And several moments when I felt that twentieth century values and drama shaped the twentieth century a bit more than I liked. (Yes, that’s a totally contradictory complaint – see my Book Club entry for details. I’m not giving anything away here.) But Brooks’ depictions of ultra-nationalist and religious fanatics and petty tyrants (and ramifications of internalized self-hatred), across the centuries, are brilliant.

Mainstream readers will find a wonderful, rich, layered tale that celebrates and (re-)connects the intertwined cultural histories of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. BTWOF readers will also appreciate her rich vision of women’s lives and history, and her exquisite (re-)writing of women back into the center of all of the eras she touches. I found the book to be a profound meditation on insider and outsider perspectives, on how essential the “outsider” is to history and culture, and also, perhaps, on how quickly the credit for the outsiders’ contributions disappears. Can a writer receive two Pulitzers?

Lesbian content: You have to read for it. And then reflect on it. Subtle. Deep. And, by my definition, exquisite. Don’t spoil it for yourself by skipping over to the Book Group entries.

About the author: Novelist Geraldine Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for March, also has a past life as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She obviously likes to take compound, complex issues and tease them apart, to find their roots, to consider the way the past shapes the present, and to celebrate the rich complex diversity that makes up the world. And she brings it all and, in this case her Aussie upbringing, to her fiction. May there beanother novel, and soon! Meanwhile check out March, her consideration of possibilities of the heart and mind of the (absent) father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – a profound re-reading of the Civil War, slavery, and women’s lives. Year of Wonders, of which Publishers Weekly said: “Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut  is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone.”  Brooks’ nonfiction includes: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and her autobiographical Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over.

Aug. 10, 2008

-Carol Seajay

Comments are closed.