3/19/2013

Book Look - People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The plot is easily told: a book restorer, Hanna Heath, is asked to restore a copy of a precious ancient text, a gorgeously illuminated but mysterious Jewish Haggadah salvaged from the ashes of civil war in Sarajevo. But Hanna isn’t just a book restorer: she’s really more of a book whisperer, a literary paleontology who specializes in reconstructing the lives of ancient text by interpreting the clues left embedded in paper and ink, thread and binding, stains and marks.

Each clue that Hanna extracts from the Haggadah - a fragment of butterfly wing, missing silver clasps, a wine stain containing traces of blood, grains of sea salt, the inexplicable presence of dark-skinned woman in one of the book’s dazzling illuminations – provides Brooks an opportunity to transport us back through time to explore, through a series of "stories within the story", the timeless conflict between hatred and tolerance, between humanity and inhumanity, between despair and hope.

Each of Brooks’ deftly rendered historical vignettes reminds us of just how timeless and implacable are the forces of hate. Making a Jewish holy book the epicenter of the text is an obvious starting point for any tale of the ravages of intolerance. But as Brooks transports us back through the book’s timeline (stopping along the way in Sarajevo 1940, Vienna 1894, Venice 1609, Tarragona 1492, and Seville 1480), we see the toll that intolerance has always exacted on our humanity, a price paid not just by Jews but by Muslims and Christians as well. After every vignette, Brooks circles back to Hanna’s story which, though modern, echoes the same theme: that only through understanding and tolerance can we achieve peace – both literally and figuratively.

It’s been a while since I read a novel so wholly satisfying. Brook’s plotting is brisk and intense, her prose intelligent, her historical research impeccable. If I had to venture any criticism, it might be that Brook’s female characters tend to be cut from the same simplistic mold: strong, smart, and with a broad streak of rebellion. About all that changes is their names (Hanna, Lola, Reyna, Ruti, Isabella/Nura, al-Mura) and the nature of the peril they are facing. But I think most readers will be as willing as I was to overlook this anachronism given the novel’s sweeping historical scope, engrossing mystery, deft prose, and overarching message of compassion.

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