People of the Book

I rarely review fiction, but I've got a nice book I'd like to recommend. My friend Amy suggested it to me on facebook a while back when I was casting around for a novel to read. The novel is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.


Although a lot of people made a wider range of suggestions on my facebook post, I knew that when I saw Amy's suggestion it was the one I should try. She knows enough about me (we worked together for a few years) to zero in on something that I would appreciate, and she's a person who understand literature at a level above me, so it was unlikely that I would go wrong following her suggestion.

People of the Book is about, well, a book, and the people ... well, the people of that book. As you might expect. The book is a Haggadah, which is the Jewish document used in the Passover Seder. The details of what a Haggadah contains are not too important; suffice it to say that any practicing Jewish family has one (or several ... you can get cheap paperback ones to pass around so everyone can follow along). There is one particularly famous one, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real thing. It is odd because it is very old yet brilliantly illuminated. Many scholars think that a Haggadah of those times would not have been illuminated because the practice of drawing images would have been banned among Jews as it was among Muslims. The Sarajevo Haggadah was probably made around 1350, probably in Spain, and it has a rich history, having squeaked by various inquisitions and book burnings and having been threatened with destruction during the siege of Sarajevo.

One of these figures has African features.  I'm told. One of these figures has African features. I'm told.

The novel, People of the Book, recounts the history of the book with a steadily decreasing level of historical accuracy as the writer takes us farther and farther back in time. The modern venue involves an Australian book restorer who gets the job of stabilizing the manuscript for display in the museum in Sarajevo. As the restorer discovers physical clues in (or on) the book itself, author Geraldine Brooks brings us back in time, regaling us with a story that would explain each particular clue, with the time trips provided in order from most recent (World War II) to oldest (the 14th century, when the book was created). The most recent historical forays are somewhat plausible and based on a reasonable interpretation of history, but the earliest forays are entirely made up because we know nothing about the history of the book in those days.

And that is what makes the novel (and it is a novel, not a documentary) most interesting. The original book, and the fictionalized book in the novel, depict a woman with African features sitting at the seder table. Geraldine Brooks comes up with a very interesting fictionalized story to account for this.

Forensic book restoration, centuries of history, really bad bad guys and some pretty good good guys, epic twists and turns as well as highly unlikely coincidences that apparently really did happen, and a thoughtful perspective on the dynamic and complex history of Jews in a Muslim and Christian world, as well as a bit of modern mystery and suspense spiced up with a nice mixture of family, professional, and academic angst, combine to make for a very good read.

Thanks for suggesting it, Amy!

Photo Credit: Ivana Vasilj via Compfight cc

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Thanks Greg - the cover looks familiar. I'll have to see if my wife got it and if so whether it's still around. Otherwise I'll definitely get it for her as she is Jewish and would love to read something like this,

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 30 Apr 2013 #permalink