Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The People of the Book; Geraldine Brooks

Image found on Warren County (IL) Public Library

Published by Viking this year, The People of the Book was written by Geraldine Brooks who recently won the Pulitzer for her previous book March. I’ve not read March mainly due to uncertainty about if I’d be able to set aside my feelings and opinions about the book his character comes from, ie: he’s the dad in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. After I finished this one, though, I think I may borrow March and see just what Ms. Brooks has done with him. I am very very pleased I picked up TPotB. It’s an engrossing story about obsession and deception and preserving history and family expectations. About lies and truth and motivation.

The plot seems pretty basic on the face of it: a rare five hundred year old manuscript, an illustrated haggadah (the liturgy of the Seder) has turned up in Sarajevo. The United Nations and the local governments have asked a well known, if young, restorationist to come in and make assessments and, possibly, repairs. Interwoven with the contemporary story are vingnettes of the book’s past. The circumstances under which it was made. Who the artist was who painted the illuminations, and why she did them. How it was hidden the first time. The reader watches over Hanna Heath’s shoulders as she painstakingly, lovingly examines the manuscript, makes notes and discusses her findings with her mentors.

The haggadah’s travels range across the Old World from Spain to Vienna to Sarajevo, just as Hanna’s own life has straggled across Australia, the States and Europe in pursuit of knowledge, in pursuit of physical and metaphorical space between her mother and herself. I loved the vignettes of the haggadah’s creation. All of the different characters who play a role in its creation or preservation illuminate the time and place and condition of the people who possess it. The haggadah traces a small slice of European Jews and their tenuous integration in Christian Europe across history. Like many old and valuable objects, the haggadah has always been at the mercy of political ambition, greed power and persons who feel they have moral superiority over others.

Hanna too is at the mercy of these same forces, and it isn’t pretty. Hanna had me puzzled towards the end. Commonly, people’s identity is closely wrapped with their career. Hanna’s no different. She discovers something about the haggadah that literally causes her to question herself, her training, her very identity. Hanna is so shaken by events she leaves her profession. None of her mother’s forceful character and will seems to have transmitted itself to her. Hanna is unable to overcome childhood feelings of neglect and overshadowing to see her mother’s strength. This too is a common problem, nonetheless I wished very hard that Hanna could grow more.

My problem with how Ms. Brooks deals with this is that Hanna is too accepting, too emotionally needy of a companion thus she doesn’t deeply question people intimately involved in the events that led directly to her change of occupation. And I wanted her to. I was shocked that a woman whose life was so profoundly changed by people and events didn’t question them or rail at them when she had a chance. I felt let down in a way. I had come to really like Hanna quite a bit and I hoped for..more inquisitiveness, more questioning of people important to her and to the book. Even if they didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t answer her I would have felt better. Essentially Hanna is an historical investigator, but when it comes to real live people her investigating instincts and training are washed away. I don’t need all of the threads to be wrapped up in a neat bow, I simply feel that Ms. Brooks could have fleshed her out more after such a serious and life altering event.

The People of the Book is loosely based on real events surrounding a haggadah found in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. I found the narrative enjoyable and engrossing if somewhat flawed. Link to brief article about the actual Sarajevo Haggadah. In depth article of actual relic and its recent history here, free registration necessary to read full contents.

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