Readers may be most familiar with Geraldine Brooks for her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 novel “March,” which imagined the Civil War experience of Mr. March from “Little Women.” In her latest novel, “People of the Book,” Brooks tackles much less familiar territory, imagining the history of the (real) Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest existing Jewish prayer books to use illuminated illustrations.
In 1996, as the Bosnian conflict is coming to an end, Hanna Heath, a (fictional) Australian book conservator, is asked to make repairs to the Haggadah, which was (actually) fortuitously hidden while the city was bombed and looted during the war. But this rescue was only one of many lucky breaks in its history.
As she works, Hanna finds clues to those earlier episodes embedded among the book’s pages. A butterfly wing, a wine stain and a white cat’s hair give clues to the Haggadah’s journey from Seville to Sarajevo. Brooks’ novel moves back and forth between Hanna’s story and earlier episodes in this journey, which we learn is deeply entwined with the history of the persecution of Jews in Europe.
The novel’s religious themes, and the mysteries Hanna finds on the Haggadah’s pages, prompted USA Today to call “People of the Book” “an erudite Da Vinci Code.” Not so much.
For one thing, there are no Dan Brown-style cliffhangers to be found. If anything, the novel’s major flaw is that it is too interested in its subject matter, without taking the time to convince the reader to feel the same way. Although Hanna may be the first fictional book conservator to warrant an armed United Nations escort, we are never convinced that she is really endangered. The self-contained flashbacks to earlier episodes in the book’s history are thrilling mini-dramas, but Hanna’s contrived and cliched personal story only starts to keep the pages turning in the second half of “People of the Book.”
But ultimately, the novel’s subject is a compelling one, bolstered by Brooks’ clearly exhaustive research. Throughout its history, the Haggadah — a delicate work of parchment and ink — is threatened: by Sarajevan bombings, Nazi capture and the flames of an Inquisition auto-da-fe that also claimed the lives of heretics. Here, the book’s physical danger stands in for the danger facing European Jews — the title’s “People of the Book” — during waves of intolerance. It’s appropriate, then, that the prayer book itself tells the story of Passover, when the Jews were liberated from Egypt. Like the novel, the Haggadah is a survival story.
Brooks, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has reported from many contemporary conflict zones, including Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East. She has seen the devastating effects of religious intolerance firsthand, which one imagines must have shaped her telling of the story of the Haggadah.
So it is no surprise that the novel is more than just the story of one book and one religion’s survival against the odds. Religious intolerance is the primary threat to the Haggadah’s survival. But at several crucial points in the book’s history, Muslims and Christians rescue the prayer book, often at great risk to themselves. A Muslim curator at Sarajevo’s national museum saves the book from looters when the city is being shelled. A Catholic Inquisitor saves the book from the bonfires.
And even the first reading of the title may be incomplete. The “People of the Book” may refer to the Jewish people, but it is also a translation of an Arabic term, “Ahl al-Kitab,” that encompasses Jews, Christians, and others who share the “divine books” of the Torah and the Gospels. During early Muslim conquests, “People of the Book” were not forced to convert to Islam, and their worship was protected.
Today, we are constantly reminded that we are fighting a “war on terror.” Read against the backdrop of current events, Brooks’ novel is a warning not to mistake that for a “war on Islam”: We should not indict an entire community for the sins of a few extremists.
As in her earlier novels, Brooks breathes life into the genre of historical fiction with “People of the Book.” But in a novel that initially seems more remote, she in fact gives us a story whose subject matter is much closer to the present day.