three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-People of the BookIn 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, starts to conserve the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless illuminated text used for the Jewish holiday of Passover. When Hanna finds artifacts in the pages—an insect wing, wine stains, saltwater, and a white hair—she determines to unravel the book’s mysteries. Hanna’s research allows the author, Geraldine Brooks, to imagine the specific stories from the history of the Haggadah—from the Spanish Inquisition, when the Jews were expelled from Spain; to 15th-century Seville, in a story involving an African slave; to 17th-century Venice, where a priest saved the text from fire; and through World War II and the Bosnian War. Hanna soon becomes obsessed with the "people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it"—among them Jews, Christians, and Muslims—and the settings where different cultures mingled while simultaneously cultivating hatred.
Viking. 372 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 067001821X

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] tour de force that delivers a reverberating lesson gleaned from history. … It’s a brilliant, innately suspenseful structure, and one that allows Brooks to show off her remarkable aptitude for assimilating research and conveying a wide range of settings." Heller McAlpin

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"All of these [historical] sections are richly imagined, almost unbearably tense, and tackle, sometimes obliquely, other times directly, the issues of exodus, marginalization, and brutality during periods of extreme nationalism: the Alhambra Decree, the Waidhofen Manifesto, the Venetian Ghettos, National Socialism, just to name a few." Ethan Rutherford

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In [the final flashback] the sufferings of Jews expelled from Spain are matched in misery by the treatment of African Muslims sold into bondage, and Brooks makes telling use of the single image of a black woman that appears in the Sarajevo Haggadah itself. … [The historical episodes] comprise a virtuoso performance, and the last of them, ‘A White Hair,’ is extraordinarily moving." James Leigh

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The good news is that this new novel … is intelligent, thoughtful, gracefully written and original. … Hanna, in whom it’s not difficult to detect a hint of the author’s own past as a determined, hard-digging reporter, is a quirky, no-nonsense woman whom I find exceptionally easy to like." Jonathan Yardley

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The framework connecting [the historical episodes], it must be admitted, grows increasingly obtrusive and formulaic as the author sends Hanna once again to yet another expert, whose revelations inevitably introduce the next historical installment." Wendy Smith

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A subtle kind of suspense derives from Brooks’ method of beginning with the most recent historical chapter and moving back in time toward the manuscript’s ultimate mystery: the identity of the illuminator who provided the images that the Third Commandment expressly forbids. … [Brooks’s] Sarajevo Haggadah embodies both the story of the survival of the Jews against terrible odds and the story of all thinking people’s relationship to the past." Emily Barton

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Brooks’ effort to create an entertaining narrative in which to embed the historical vignettes is admirable, but she handles the Da Vinci Code–like thriller moments as if splicing Masterpiece Theater with CSI." Jenny Shank

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The forensic details of manuscript analysis are far more interesting and subtle than Hanna’s personal evolution. … It strains for the momentum of a Da Vinci Code but is bogged down by convoluted ambitions." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

In the spirit of her previous books, Geraldine Brooks explores the roots of cross-cultural convergence and divergence. Richly imagined but based on fact, People of the Book covers details from the most terrible times of religious intolerance, from the Inquisition to the Nazis, while revealing an enduring humanity. Interweaving Hanna’s story with flashbacks, Brooks builds drama and suspense. While critics praised the compelling plot, many disagreed about the narrative structure. Some thought that Brooks seamlessly tied together the Haggadah’s and Hanna’s stories (including her romantic entanglement), while others considered the young woman’s story too contrived. Despite this tidy structure, the stories Brooks tells "passionately affirm the enduring values of tolerance, compassion, inclusion and diversity" (Chicago Tribune)—a lesson for the ages.