People of the Book is, for me as a reader, the perfect union of an author I love with subject matter I love. The author is, of course, Geraldine Brooks, famous for her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel March, but even more admired (by me) for the haunting Year of Wonders, about a woman who survives the bubonic plague while a village dies around her. Her subject matter this time around is the sub-genre I like to call “Adventures in Research” — a genre made most popular in the unjustly famous Da Vinci Code, though far better exemplified, for my money, in Wilton Barnhardt’s underrated Gospel and a score of other books about dedicated researchers chasing elusive old manuscripts around the world.
People of the Book centres not around a fictional manuscript but a real one — the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully and unusually illuminated medieval Jewish manuscript that has survived all kinds of historical threats to make it to the twenty-first century intact. Brooks takes the known facts of the manuscript’s survival in twentieth-century Bosnia — where this Jewish manuscript was twice saved by Muslim museum curators, once during World War Two and once during the 1990s civil war — and fictionalizes them. But the novelist’s imagination allows her to go farther than historical fact or even scholarly speculation — based on a handful of clues that Brooks’ narrator, fictional manuscript conservator Hanna Heath, finds in the Haggadah, she reconstructs the story of its long journey from fifteenth-century Seville to twenty-first century Sarajevo, creating stories and characters for each stage of the manuscript’s journey.
The unifying thread that ties all these imagined stories together is that this manuscript — a Jewish religious text created in Muslim-ruled Spain and illustrated in a style typical of Christian prayer books — was threatened, at every stage of its long journey, by racial and religious conflict, specifically anti-Jewish prejudices beginning with Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, down to the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia in World War Two. But at each turn of the story, the manuscript survives because of co-operation among Jews, Christians and Muslims — becoming a symbol of unity and the possibility of peace in a world torn by conflict.
It’s a wonderful theme, and a wonderfully woven-together novel, even though there’s no strong narrative plotline in the present-day story until the very end — the manuscript isn’t under threat from Bad Guys or being whisked around the world undercover. Rather, the present-day momentum of the story is pulled along by the personal story of Hanna Heath, her passion for her work, her troubled relationship with her mother, her discovery of her unknown father’s identity, and her inability to commit in love even after she finds a man to whom she’s deeply attracted. Hanna’s story is a strong one, but it’s played out in the margins of the novel while, fittingly, the story of the Haggadah and its long strange journey takes centre stage.
This is a beautiful, intricately-put-together novel of the kind I like best, and the fact that it’s loosely based on a true story makes it even better. It’s a wonderful illustration of what fiction can do that the best history and scholarship cannot — make the worlds of the past real to our imagination, so that we actually see and hear and touch the people who touched the haggadah, the people of the Book.