There are some books you like, some you love, some you would even buy to keep a copy for forever. And then there are those rare ones that inspire you to write. For an author, these books are often troublesome. Because they make you take a look at your oeuvre and make you want to start all over again.
Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book is one such book. The book begins with Hanna Heath, a restorer of rare books and manuscripts on her journey to Sarajevo for a restoration work that would probably be the highlight of her career. The reader is swept along with Hanna’s excitement, her wry sense of humor and plain no-nonsense attitude, as she lands in Sarajevo and is guided to the library of the National University of Bosnia under heavy surveillance. There, in vaults and locks lies Sarajevo Haggadah, a laminated lavishly illustrated manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. Pressed in the brilliant pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah, is a butterfly, a wine stain, a drop of blood, a white hair and more. And all these little pieces of history tell the story of the famous manuscript that survived 600 years of book burning. Behind the rich illustrations of the text of Hagaddah, are the stories of its survival during the war and terror – during the bombings in Bosnia, the partisan resistance during the Second World War, the intrigues of hedonistic Vienna and the fires of Inquisition. As Hanna Heath explores each little artifact in the book, the reader journeys backward in time to discover the secret history of the manuscript.
Brooks’s storytelling technique is masterful. She anchors her story in the present – around Hanna’s restoration of the manuscript and her research to discover the truth behind each little artifact pressed in its pages. Each of these artifacts opens the door to the past which allows the author to capture the historical and cultural nuances that the book elicits. A minor subplot consists of Hanna’s tense relationship with her mother, a high-profile surgeon and an equally tension-fraught affair with Ozren Karaman, a professor at the Bosnian University. Brooks does not go out of her way to make the characters likable; they are often nasty, cold and flawed but there is an inherent realness about them. While the characters of the present link the threads of the story, it is the people in the past who bring it alive. That is where Brooks is the best – especially in her depiction of the Second World War and the 18th century Vienna.
The only weak point in this otherwise compelling book is the end which gives in to the generic formula of academic mystery/thrillers. The stealing of the Hagaddah and its rediscovery seems added on to the narrative of Hanna’s discovery of the manuscript’s rich history. It also leads to unfortunate comparisons with Da Vinci Code-like action packed thrillers. Brooks’s text is not an edge-of-the-seat thriller. It is thrilling in its exploration of the past, the little stories which are forgotten in the march of history.
It is not the conclusion but the journey which makes Brooks’ text beautiful. All in all, a must for anyone interested in a well written, well researched historical fiction.