As I am sure I have stated far too many times, perhaps akin to being hit repeatedly over the head with a frying pan, I love to read. Absolutely love it. I think some people wouldn’t recognize me without my head buried in a book. I was an English major – explanation enough.
Repetition aside, I thought I’d start a regular feature where I discuss books that I have recently read, fondly remember from grade school or have read so many times they are not so much books but piles of paper held together by a few determined strands of cardboard binding.
First up: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.
This is a fictionalized account of the multi-century journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which traveled from Spain during the Inquisition through Italy and Austria, and then to Bosnia during World War II. The haggadah (a book that tells the story of Passover) features beautiful, intricate illustrations that are not common to books created at the time – there were religious rules concerning idolatry and creating images. But this controversial haggadah was saved from the book burnings of the Spanish Inquisition and destruction of the Nazis. It was protected by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Really, the story is fascinating without the fictionalization.
But Brooks, who won the Pulitzer for her novel March (which, I admit, I haven’t read), makes the story of the haggadah even more compelling by spinning stories around each place and point in history to help explain why the haggadah might have been saved. Brooks’ flashbacks are richly developed and provide interesting details of each moment in time, such as the masks worn during the carnivale in Venice or the repurposed Nazi uniforms worn by Jewish escapees of Nazi-occupied Sarajevo.
These longer chapters are strung together by the story of Hanna Heath, a rare-books PhD who is given the task of analyzing and conserving the haggadah. At first, jumping between Hanna’s shorter chapters and the historical sections was disorienting; I became so engrossed in the haggadah’s story that I had forgotten all about Hanna by the time I returned to her story. Some of the jumps backwards and forwards in time are abrupt, and Hanna’s relationships with her mother and other characters are often one-note, and they pale in comparison with the emotion Brooks weaves into the historical narrative. As I read, however, the transitions between time grew smoother, and I was able to sympathize somewhat with Hanna’s personal troubles in the end. Though, always, the haggadah is most important.
I have to say I really enjoyed reading this novel. I geeked out over the historical aspect, and was able to get swept up in the fiction. To be honest, I was a little sad to reach the end, knowing that Brooks’ stories are not true. I can only suspend reality for as long as the book lets me. And, though several characters are based off what is known about the people who interacted with the haggadah, it would be truly fascinating to be able to know exactly why they went to such lengths to save it. But I’m geeking out again. Anyway, Brooks has written a cracking good story, and I definitely recommend it.