My sister is a big fan of the historical bodice-ripper, but People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is my kind of historical fiction. As soon as I saw the title, there was no question that I would have to seriously consider purchasing this book. The blurb on the back did nothing to discourage me. As much as the title sounds like a cheesy take on low-rent historical novels, what’s inside is a fabulous read by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Brooks (whom I’ve never read before).
Hanna is a specialist in text preservation, sent to Sarajevo to authenticate and restore a 500-year-old, illustrated Jewish prayer book, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah (which really exists). As Hanna examines and rebinds the book, we learn the history of the book through those who created, sheltered and used the book throughout its history. Much of the history Brooks shares is accurate (with names and details changed) and much is invented, but the result is a tribute to those who put what is right above what is safe. Part detective novel, part human drama, part history lesson – this novel contains the best and worst of human behavior in all its glory.
As we follow the book through its travels, we visit places where – contrary to the current public discourse – Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony as well as close quarters. And yes, that was places – plural. Seville, Vienna and Sarajevo are among the cities where people lived together, putting their parallels as human beings above their disparities as believers. None of these golden ages lasted forever – nothing is certain but change. I revel in these examples of places and times when people realized that – regardless of upbringing or faith – we all have something to learn and share with each other. The things we have in common are more important and numerous than the things we do not. I’m sure that comes across as simplistic and sappy – but that doesn’t mean it is false. That is what I believe, and what keeps me going in the face of a negative world. It is nice to spend time with someone who shares my view, and includes evidence of whole communities who agreed. Those of us who wish to build a future of diversity and understanding can be encouraged by past successes.
Regardless of whether or not this theme is important to you, the story is gripping, the character of Hanna is interesting, and any fan of the CSI shows will find lots of scientific exploration to entertain them. The writing is not top-notch, but well-done and moves at a nice pace. I thought the frame story of Hanna’s life was a bit thin, but the story of the book is well-executed and a great read.