People of the Book

Written by Geraldine Brooks
Review by Teresa Basinski Eckford

This wonderful gem has convinced me to put Geraldine Brooks’s other novels on my to-be-read list. Set both in the mid-1990s and during various other points in history (1940s Sarajevo, 19th-century Vienna, 17th-century Venice, 15th-century Tarragona, and 15th-century Seville), it tells the tale of a Haggadah saved by a Muslim librarian in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and is based on an actual event.

Hanna Heath is the conservation expert sent to Sarajevo to restore the precious book. During her work she discovers artifacts caught in its pages and binding, sending her on a mission to discover its past. Interwoven with her quest are historical vignettes that illustrate how each of the recovered artifacts came to be part of the Haggadah.

While Hanna’s story is interesting, the lives from the past that we glimpse are the heart of this novel. Each one pulls us in, involves us and adds depth to the Haggadah’s history. From the young Jewish Sarajevan freedom fighter to the enslaved African painter, the characters and their stories come alive. As the book’s principal heroine, Hanna grows and changes, learning about her own past while uncovering the mysteries of the artifacts.

The historical details are plentiful and specific to each period, both enlightening and enriching. I learned so much reading this book, and it is clear Ms. Brooks did a great deal of research. The one slight quibble I had was that at times the scientific and technical details pulled me out of the narrative.

Delightful to read, Ms. Brooks’s prose will appeal to all readers with its easily accessible literary voice, employing period language that doesn’t overwhelm. She moves from first to third point of view, depending on the characters, yet the shifts are so effortless the reader barely notices.

An emotionally absorbing read, very highly recommended for all.