People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Just finished reading People of the Book.  This is a book that I bought some time ago but have delayed reading, not for any particular reason, although the description on the jacket is not the most exciting and may deter some people, but I like Geraldine Brooks work (I loved Year of Wonders and never lose an opportunity to recommend it strongly) and so there was never any doubt that I would eventually read this and to be honest I found it was a really good and compelling read.  In fact the pages have simply flown and now I’ve finished I feel there is so much to think about.

The story begins in Sarajevo in the 1990s where a precious artifact has been discovered and a well known conservator working for the UN  has been requested to bring her talents to the table to help restore this treasure in a sympathetic way.  The artifact in question is a rare prayer book known as a Haggadah – that has managed to survive intact in spite of the wars and atrocities surrounding it.  The story is told in the first person by Hannah, the UN conservator from Australia, and is interspersed by a number of third person short historical stories that gradually work their way back over time and place to stretch back to the book’s original inception in the 1400s.

There is so much of interest contained in this novel that it is literally difficult to put it down.  It is a fictionalised account of a series of possibilities surrounding the true discovery and restoration of this ancient Jewish prayer book.  We start off in Sarajevo in 1940 when the book is rescued from the looting then taking place under the German occupation.  Gradually we work our way backwards through time looking briefly at historical events taking place in Vienna, Venice, Barcelona and Sierra.  At the same time we follow Hannah’s progress from uncovering the book and finding a number of things contained within the pages which may help to uncover some of it’s history to her globetrotting antics in order to invesitage these items.

The story is so well written, and the short stories are full of interesting descriptions and people, and although this is a story of persecution it is also a story of living together harmoniously.  We are shown a brief history of the relationship between different religions and how needless destruction is caused by unnecessary prejudice, we are also shown how, when these cultures live harmoniously together they are able to enrich each others lives.  Interestingly, reading the Afterword, you discover that the Haggadah escaped certain destruction on two occasions through the efforts of two muslims who took great risks to ensure that this artifact survived.

I don’t really have any criticisms as such.  I will admit that I enjoyed the short historical stories more than Hannah’s own personal tale (which for me took a bit of an unnecessary turn – and also, although well written, I didn’t particularly enjoy Hannah’s character overly – but perhaps that was the intention of the author as Hannah had been raised in a rather ‘love free’ zone and her character seemed a little austere).  I could quite easily have read more of these historical chapters (particularly Lola and Zahra), they are rich in detail and although short I became easily intrigued with each different set of characters.

I would definitely recommend this book.  I think you need to persevere through the first few pages, which are quite rich in detail about the restorative process and whilst they are a testament to the amount of research that the author has undertaken they are not gripping, once past this inital stage however the story is totally intriguing.  If you love a bit of history and don’t mind the cutting from modern to historical, weaved together with a bit of investigation and mystery and a more uptodate story of duplicity then definitely give this a go.

Rating -A

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