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People of the Book: A Novel (Paperback)


Amazon.com Review
Amazon Best of the Month, January 2008: One of the earliest Jewish religious volumes to be illuminated with images, the Sarajevo Haggadah survived centuries of purges and wars thanks to people of all faiths who risked their lives to safeguard it. Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, has turned the intriguing but sparely detailed history of this precious volume into an emotionally rich, thrilling fictionalization that retraces its turbulent journey. In the hands of Hanna Heath, an impassioned rare-book expert restoring the manuscript in 1996 Sarajevo, it yields clues to its guardians and whereabouts: an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. While readers experience crucial moments in the book's history through a series of fascinating, fleshed-out short stories, Hanna pursues its secrets scientifically, and finds that some interests will still risk everything in the name of protecting this treasure. A complex love story, thrilling mystery, vivid history lesson, and celebration of the enduring power of ideas, People of the Book will surely be hailed as one of the best of 2008. --Mari Malcolm

From Publishers Weekly
Reading Geraldine Brooks's remarkable debut novel, Year of Wonders, or more recently March, which won the Pulitzer Prize, it would be easy to forget that she grew up in Australia and worked as a journalist. Now in her dazzling new novel, People of the Book, Brooks allows both her native land and current events to play a larger role while still continuing to mine the historical material that speaks so ardently to her imagination. Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah, which disappeared during the siege in 1992, has been found, and Hanna has been invited by the U.N. to report on its condition. Missing documents and art works (as Dan Brown and Lev Grossman, among others, have demonstrated) are endlessly appealing, and from this inviting premise Brooks spins her story in two directions. In the present, we follow the resolutely independent Hanna through her thrilling first encounter with the beautifully illustrated codex and her discovery of the tiny signs-a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a drop of salt, a wine stain-that will help her to discover its provenance. Along with the book she also meets its savior, a Muslim librarian named Karaman. Their romance offers both predictable pleasures and genuine surprises, as does the other main relationship in Hanna's life: her fraught connection with her mother. In the other strand of the narrative we learn, moving backward through time, how the codex came to be lost and found, and made. From the opening section, set in Sarajevo in 1940, to the final section, set in Seville in 1480, these narratives show Brooks writing at her very best. With equal authority she depicts the struggles of a young girl to escape the Nazis, a duel of wits between an inquisitor and a rabbi living in the Venice ghetto, and a girl's passionate relationship with her mistress in a harem. Like the illustrations in the Haggadah, each of these sections transports the reader to a fully realized, vividly peopled world. And each gives a glimpse of both the long history of anti-Semitism and of the struggle of women toward the independence that Hanna, despite her mother's lectures, tends to take for granted. Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless. Copyright 2007 Publishers Weekly. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

"A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand." , December 31, 2007
By E. Bukowsky "booklover10" (NY United States)


"The People of the Book," by Geraldine Brooks, opens in Sarajevo in 1996. Under the watchful eyes of bank security guards, Bosnian police officers, two United Nations peacekeepers, and an official UN observer, a thirty-year-old Aussie named Hanna Heath has been hired to perform an exacting task. She is about to examine a precious fifteenth century codex, the Sarajevo Haggadah, "one of the rarest and most mysterious volumes in the world." Hanna's impressive qualifications include honors degrees in chemistry and Near Eastern languages as well as a PhD in fine art conservation, which as she patiently explains, is very different from book restoration. She knows her materials intimately: calf's intestine, pigments, gold leaf, and parchment are some of the tools of her trade. The Haggadah, which was created in medieval Spain, is "a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind."

The book first came to light in 1894. After passing through many hands, it disappeared in 1992, when the Sarajevo siege began. After four years, it suddenly reappears and an Israeli expert, Amitai Yomtov, awakens Hannah at two o'clock in the morning to tell her the exciting news. Most scholars believed that the book had been stolen or destroyed during the fighting. It turns out that the head of the museum library in Sarajevo, Ozren Karaman, placed the Haggadah in a safe-deposit box for safekeeping. "Can you imagine, Channah?" Amitai exclaims. "A Muslim, risking his neck to save a Jewish book." Now, UN officials want an expert to inspect the Haggadah for signs of damage.

Although she is technically proficient and has written many highly-regarded papers in her field, Hanna brings something extra to the table. "It has to do with an intuition about the past. By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book." Indeed that is exactly what Brooks does in this meticulously crafted work, with its beautifully realized, three-dimensional cast of characters and its compelling and richly textured plot. As Hanna delves into the history of a priceless text, the reader is transported to 1940 Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1609 Venice, 1492 Tarragona, and 1480 Seville. Along the way, we gain insight into the political, religious, and social turmoil that has beset the Jewish people over the centuries.

The author alternates chapters set in 1996 with those that take place further back in the past. As the story progresses, we come ever closer to the secret of who created this magnificent work of art. The journey is all the more wonderful because of the people who accompany us: Lola is a Sarajevan Jew who joins the partisans during World War II; destiny brings her to an Albanian scholar who will protect both her and the Haggadah from the Nazis. In Venice, we meet a bitter and sick Austrian bookbinder, Herr Florien Mittl. Ironically, this virulent anti-Semite is entrusted with the painstaking job of rebinding the Haggadah. In Venice, an alcoholic priest named Giovanni Domenico Vistorini is a censor of the Inquisitor. He may allow the Haggadah to "pass" or declare it a work of heresy and consign it to the flames. David Ben Shoushan, a poor Hebrew scribe in Tarragona, Spain, fills his mind with holy letters as he prepares to make his own vital contribution to the Haggadah. The final pieces of the puzzle fall into place in Seville, Spain, at the time of the Jews' expulsion.

Against the backdrop of these tumultuous historical events, we observe the vitriolic Hanna soften, mature, and fall in love with Ozran Karaman, whose hidden grief after suffering a series of tragedies may prevent him from reciprocating her affection. An irritated Hanna repeatedly clashes with her aloof and disapproving mother, a highly respected neurosurgeon who has always belittled her daughter's work. In the book's one misstep, the author allows a bit of melodrama to taint her otherwise impeccable narrative when the protagonist uncovers some startling truths about her identity.

Geraldine Brooks shows how the Haggadah's fate illuminates the prejudice and mindless persecution that have too often poisoned communities and nations throughout the world. Ozren wonders why more people do not realize "that to be a human being matters more than to be Jew or a Muslim, [or a] Catholic." This is an engrossing, poignant, and skillfully constructed novel. It is a marvel of storytelling at its best.

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