Tuesday, February 19, 2008

History of Haggadah Beautifully Illuminated in People of the Book

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When my MIL handed me People of the Book, she said, "It's like The Da Vinci Code, only lots better." So, when I opened the novel, I expected a globe-crossing, adventure/mystery exploring the origins of a historical object. Having read Geraldine Brooks' previous novels, I should have realized that I would be getting much more than a Da Vinci Code copycat; People of the Book is an original, compelling story and my favorite Brooks novel to date.

The story revolves around Australian Hanna Heath, a no-nonsense rare book expert, who is selected to participate in a career-making restoration. The object of interest is a 15th Century haggadah (a Jewish manuscript containing the story of the Exodus), illuminated in a curiously non-traditional manner. Hanna travels to Sarajevo to examine the treasure, which has survived despite massive shelling in Bosnia. While restoring the book's binding, Hanna finds a handful of artifacts - a white hair, a wine stain, a butterfly wing and salt crystals - which lead her on a journey across the globe to trace the book back to its mysterious beginnings.

Each artifact receives a separate chapter as the tale moves backward in time. We discover the significance of the butterfly fragment as a Muslim risks his life to save the haggadah from the Nazis. The wine stain takes us back to 17th Century Venice, where a Jewish rabbi begs a Catholic priest to save the book from the Inquisition's fires. As each clue illuminates a portion of the Haggadah's history, we see each hand that created it, loved it, and risked everything to save it. Although Hanna doesn't get as complete a story as the reader does, the deeper she delves into the mystery, the more her admiration grows for the incredible book; she can't wait to bring its remarkable history to light. On the eve of its public debut, however, Hanna discovers something that will shake her to the core. Is it possible that the treasure is only a brilliant fake? Will Hanna, like the book's previous protectors, have to risk everything to save the real haggadah?

People of the Book is a brilliant historical mystery, replete with danger, adventure and a cast of characters masterfully rendered. Like the haggadah itself, each character is plain on the outside - "nothing that an untrained eye would look twice at" (14) - but illuminated with colorful passions on the inside. Brooks picks each apart, showing their weaknesses as much as their strong devotion; Jews, Christians, Muslims, agnostics - all get the same treatment from their creator. Her point is super fine: Each person - despite his color, religion or creed - protected the book because it was the right thing to do. Brooks underscores her point at the end of the book when one of the characters says, "...To be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox" (361).

Weirdly, I found all of the charcters in People of the Book sympathetic and endearing except one: Hanna Heath. I disliked her on sight. Although I began to have some empathy for her - especially after meeting her mother - it didn't make me like her any better. It didn't help that dips into Hanna's personal life were mostly just awkward - especially when she suddenly discovers the secret of her father's identity - and distracted from the story.

Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It requires more focus than The Da Vinci Code, but it makes Dan Brown's masterpiece look like the work of a clumsy child. People of the Book is like the haggadah itself - plain on the outside, but beautifully illuminated within.

Grade: A-

10 comments:

  1. "but it makes Dan Brown's masterpiece look like the work of a clumsy child"

    Brilliant. I really must get around to reading this one. Soon.

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  2. I thought this was a really good book too. Great review!

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  3. I am next on the list at the library. I think that one of the librarians must be reading it, because it has been in cataloguing for ages now!

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  4. I really enjoyed the book - it's one of the best I've read recently.

    Marg - your comment made me LOL. The only reason I got this book from the library is because my MIL reqested it, then passed it on to me. I have to run down and return it today so she doesn't get a late fee on her account!

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  5. I'm glad you liked it. I always wonder if I get too enthusiastic in my recommendations.

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  6. I bought this one a couple of weeks ago but I've been holding off starting it until I have enough time to read it in long stretches. I've seen nothing but positive comments about it and I'm really looking forward to reading it...glad to see that you enjoyed it as well.

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  7. I always felt like I was "the one" who discovered Geraldine Brooks when I read Year of Wonders. I remember that I was managing a bookstore and found myself almost pushing the book onto people because it was so new and different. I am thrilled to read your great review about her new book. Again she has left the ordinary behind and is crafting her own excitement. It sounds like the perfect way to spend my new Valentine's Day Gift Certificate!!

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  8. This is one I want to read, but is lost somewhere in the library. But since I have read your review, I might just go ahead and buy it. I didn't expect it to be an exciting book after reading March, so I'm anxious for the experience!

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  9. I did a big research project on Bosnia, so this one sounded interesting just for that. After your review, it sounds like a good book in its own right as well. Thanks! :)

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  10. What a wonderful review you wrote! I must go ahead and read this. My library book group is reading YEAR OF WONDERS for March and I am really enjoying it. There is an article about Geraldine Brooks, her work, and this new book in this months copy of the magazine BOOKMARKS.

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