PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks (Viking), 368 pages, $28.50 cloth. Rating: NNN
Book conservation sounds like a snore as a fiction theme, but Geraldine Brooks makes it totally fascinating in People Of The Book.
Rare book expert Hanna Heath has been called to Sarajevo to analyze and conserve a famous Haggadah created in 15th-century Spain.
Each piece of evidence she uncovers – an insect’s wing, a white hair, traces of salt – takes her back in time to an individual’s unique story. We learn about a Hungarian partisan rescuing the book from the Nazis, a late 19th-century rabbi who stops the book’s burning in Vienna, tales from 17th-century Venice and 15th-century Spain.
Meanwhile, Hanna’s present situation is also tense. She has a godawful relationship with her mother, a neurosurgeon driven, Hanna thinks, only by ambition. She finds out, though, that there’s more going on after her mother gets into a car accident. And the Haggadah itself, fought over by art forgers and nationalist fanatics, is still in jeopardy.
The mystery element arises from the Haggadah’s spectacular illustrations, unusual in Jewish texts. Who made them? What’s their story?
The love interest feels tacked on, but, typical of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks, the historical detail here is rich and offers deep insight into anti-Semitism over the centuries. Brooks makes a point of evoking the many connections between Muslims and Jews throughout this history; on several occasions Muslims take heroic risks to save the Haggadah and vulnerable Jews from destruction.
But the minutiae of the art of conservation, conveyed in ways that make you want to take up the trade yourself, are what set this book apart. Who knew those people holed up in national archives were this interesting?
Brooks joins the Harbourfront Reading Series at the Brigantine Room Wednesday (February 13).