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Review: People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

Hanna’s phone rings in the middle of the night.  When she answers it, she is at first annoyed, until she realizes that she is being offered the opportunity to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the world’s most precious medieval manuscripts.  On her official visit, she not only re-binds and restores the book but also picks up little clues as to its history, which she then follows across the world.  Interspersed with Hanna’s narrative, we get these glimpses of the people in the book’s past, illuminating its purpose and fascinating past.

I love books about books and this is no exception.  I enjoyed the intimate description of the book to start off with; now that I understand what quires are and how parchment is made, these things become much richer for me.  I think that Brooks pulled off the intertwined narratives very well.  If anything, I always wanted to hear more about the historical parts; what happened to these people?  Each time, I got drawn in, and I didn’t want the vignettes to end.  For the most part, the stories only follow the history of the book.  It made me think about all of the medieval books that I have encountered.  Most of them do not have a history as exciting as this one’s, but it’s a heady, exciting thought.

That isn’t to say Hanna’s personal story isn’t interesting, though.  I doubt it would have worked without the book, but her search for her father and strained relationship with her mother add something that I think may make this more universal than to just those of us who are obsessed with old books.  I liked Hanna and I liked the ending.  More, though, the overall message got to me.  This book survived some of the hardest parts of modern human history and each vignette highlighted something horrific, whether slavery, warfare, or the Inquisition.  It saddens me that people can do such things to one another, but I think the fact that this book, this Jewish book with illumination by a Muslim, survived is Brooks’ way of keeping hope alive.  I like that.  I like that a lot.

Buy People of the Book on Amazon.

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