Saturday, March 29, 2008

The people of the book

There's something appealing about a story centred on books: hidden books, lost books, books that contain secrets or answers to ancient mysteries, books with the power to change lives.

Recent favourites of mine have included Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, The people of the book, falls into that category. It is ambitious, well-intentioned and deftly told, and has been on top of best-seller lists almost since its release earlier this year.

Even though Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winner (for March), her name and literary skill alone are not enough to generate the scale of sales needed to beat mass market pop fiction paperbacks and film tie-ins.

The answer, then, must lie in the story itself.

A synopsis
The people of the book traces the journey of a rare illuminated Hebrew manuscript from fifteenth century Spain, to the Silver Age of Venice and the ruins of a twentieth century war-torn Sarajevo.

It opens in 1996, when Australian rare-book expert Hannah is asked to analyse and conserve the famed Haggadah manuscript, which has been rescued once again from shelling during the Bosnian war. The book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes to be illuminated with figurative paintings.

When Hanna discovers a series of tiny artefacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she becomes determined to unlock the book’s mysteries.

Throughout the story, the ancient book is the only constant character. The narrative is told through a series of vignettes featuring owners of the Haggadah and its artwork throughout history - cleverly provided in reverse chronological order.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of Vienna in 1894, the book becomes a pawn in an emerging contest between the city’s cultured cosmopolitanism and its rising anti-Semitism. In Venice in 1609, a Catholic priest saves it from Inquisition book burnings. In Tarragona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text has his family destroyed amid the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah’s extraordinary illuminations is finally revealed.

Each vignette shows the universality of suffering, how every generation gains power and prestige by finding a group of people to make outcast.

If good intentions were everything, this novel would have the power to heal the rifts in the world created by religion, simply through the power of narrative.

Ultimately, the story highlights how diverse cultures can enrich and influence each other in wonderfully positive ways. Brooks' theme is hardly subtle, and while it is not original, it remains powerful: what unites us is more than what divides us.

(In between each vignette, we return to Hannah and her increasingly engaging personal story involving a strained relationship with her mother and a tense romance with the Serbian Muslim who rescued the Haggadah during the war).

The people of the book is rich in detail. It is full of meticulously researched information on language, art, history, science, book binding and religion. It needs to be read slowly, enjoyed like a fine meal. It has too many flavours to be devoured quickly.

Generally, I get the most out of a novel if I can read it intensively (either in a single sitting, or several long sittings). But I feel I may have robbed myself by doing that with this novel.

(The Haggadah is a real manuscript. In her author's note, Brooks details what parts of her story are based on fact and what parts are the author's imagining.)

Note: The First Tuesday Book Club on ABC is discussing The people of the book this week.

Here's my review of Geraldine Brooks' 2011 release: Caleb's Crossing


Salty Letters said...

HI Paula,

Your posted article about 'People of the Book ' made me very curious, so I'm trying to order it - here - at my bookstore in The Netherlands.

( see what a writers word can do , all over the world haha- big smile )

Paula Weston said...

Oh the power ... ha!

That's great. I hope you enjoy it and look forward to hearing your thoughts if you can get your hands on a copy.

Carla Sonheim said...

Yes, I definitely need to find a copy, too. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.