Remember that gorgeous film, Red Violin, which tells the story (backwards) of the creation and fantastical 300-plus-year-history of the eponymous instrument? People of the Book uses a similar structure to reveal the story of a 500-year-old illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. That haggadah is very real; the novel, however, as Geraldine Brooks explains in her “Afterword,” “… is a work of fiction … While some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history, most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary.”
What Brooks does with her Book is exactly what her contemporary protagonist, a Harvard PhD-ed Australian rare books expert, wishes for: “I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.” Lucky readers are we to get the full story …
In 1996, young Dr. Hanna Heath – rather a bit angry at the world, seemingly alone by choice – agrees to travel to war-torn Sarajevo, still smoldering from the tragic destruction of civil war. She’s agreed to conserve a 15th-century Hebrew manuscript found in a safe-deposit box of the shell-shocked city’s central bank. In between her work with the Sarajevo Haggadah, Hanna’s own story takes shape … her unavailable famous mother, her never-known missing father, her far-flung relationships, her growing attachment to a man she barely knows.
From fragments Hanna discovers in the holy book – an insect’s wing, the imprint of missing clasps, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a single white hair – she begins to reconstruct what might be the book’s peripatetic history of survival through a half-millenium of war and suffering. In the midst of centuries bloodied with violence – tragically, ironically, all in the various names for god – the people who created, protected, and preserved the book are of all faiths and span multiple countries and cultures. The book is a reminder of the strength of human faith over the age-old destruction wrought (again and again) in the name of religion; it becomes the proof of “the survival of our multiethnic ideal.”
Before I close, allow me this rant: Narrator Edwina Wren is a grating reminder of why not to affect various accents. While she does just fine as the Australian protagonist (Wren herself is Australian), she’s eyeball-rolling annoying with the Hogan’s Hero-esque German, the ridiculously affected lisp of one brother’s Spanish (“thorry” for “sorry” – which is just plain wrong because the z and c (after e or i) get the ‘th’ (ceceo)-inflection in some Spanish dialects, but not s!!) while the other brother doesn’t get the marbles-in-mouth treatment, the tedious Godfather-inspired Italian, etc. etc.
Okay, so you get the general message about this Book: read on the page, period.