All You People
People of the Book by the amazing Geraldine Brooks tells the fascinating story of the Sarajevo Haggadah as it journeys from its creation to its near-destruction (almost every hundred years or so) to its present-day home in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Haggadah is real, but Ms. Brooks’ story is thoroughly fictional. And rather than presenting her readers with a dry imagining of the object’s background, however, Ms. Brooks adds another layer: book conservation. And it is this particular stroke of genius that elevates People of the Book beyond your average Girl with the Pearl Earring and into the sphere of exceptionally good books.
While I suspect “book conservation” may not sound like a particularly exciting element to add to a book, I assure you it really takes this book to another level of goodness. Ms. Brooks uses the conservation of the Haggadah in the late 1990s as a frame through which all the other snapshots of the book’s history are seen. The book opens in 1996 where book conservator Hannah Heath is called upon to make the Haggadah presentable for the viewing public. It so doing, Hannah discovers little clues within the binding and the pages (such as a butterfly wing and a small piece of salt) that she can only guess at, but which Ms. Brooks fills out beautifully in reverse chronological order flashbacks.
More accurately, they are imaginings. It is never revealed if they are all truly what happened to create the clue Hannah found or if they are just Hannah’s thoughts on the matter (Hannah herself is never present, even as thoughtful narrator, in the flashbacks), although their veracity is suggested late in the book. While the reader knows none of them (or any of the stories in People of the Book) are true, Ms. Brooks still has an undeniable flair for imagining what could have been and then passionately delving into the time period to flesh out the flashback.
As I said, the book conservation angle is a stroke of brilliance in terms of a framing device, it is also the book’s weakest link. It is there merely as a framing device and Ms. Brooks does not invest as much energy into making it believable as she does the flashback sections. Most disappointingly, the Hannah section ends with a completely implausible coda of Da Vinci Code-like ludicrousness completely out of style with the rest of the book. It occurs almost completely out of left field and is so clearly unrealistic that it sours an otherwise remarkable book.
Aside from the coda, Ms. Brooks delivers a wonderfully bookish little story and one which answers my prayers from a few months back for a bookish mystery that does not involve the occult.