People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 372 pp., $25.95
Few fiction writers travel across territory as vast as that staked out by the intrepid Geraldine Brooks over the course of her career, namely, practically the whole world and several centuries of human civilization.
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "March," which imagines the life of the famously absent father in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," Brooks began her writing career as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and went on to cover some of the world's most incendiary political landscapes in the Middle East, Bosnia, Gaza, and Somalia for The Wall Street Journal. Her books of journalism, "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women" and "Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey From Down Under to All Over," are animated by Brooks's lucid take on the world, which is at once wide-eyed and clear-eyed. She meets fools and hypocrites with a dogged, even cheerful reasonableness that is as withering as invective. Yet one never senses a cynic in her work. There's a romance between Brooks and the world, and her writing is as full of heart and curiosity as it is intelligence and judgment.
Brooks followed "Year of Wonders," a novel based on the true story of an English village that quarantined itself during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1666, with "March," with its spellbinding evocation of the Civil War. Clearly, one historical period with its daunting requirements for authenticity is not enough for Brooks, whose research skills and imagination obviously require more than one era and one continent to be satisfied. Her new novel, "People of the Book," roves across time from the 15th century to the present, and across the globe from Rome to Sarajevo, Venice to Vienna, Boston to Barcelona, as it follows the story of a real book, a famous Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, a rare illuminated manuscript.
The real haggadah was rescued most recently by a Muslim librarian during the shelling of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Remarkably, Brooks discovered, this librarian was not the first Muslim to save the book from destruction. A renowned Islamic scholar had hidden it from the Nazis during World War II. Yet overall, scholars have been able to learn relatively little about the history of this remarkable and exquisite little volume, and into this void steps Brooks. Everything about the haggadah that scholars could not determine, she has imagined in a series of chapters that trace it from its creation in the mid-14th century to its arrival into the hands of her novel's protagonist, a young Australian rare-book expert, Hannah Heath. Hannah's charge is to analyze and stabilize the haggadah, and a handful of minute clues concealed in its pages - a fragment of an insect's wing, a single white hair, a curious stain - lead Hannah toward her discovery of the book's notable origins and into a mystery of her own.
It's hard to know how to characterize "People of the Book," because it borrows so successfully from many genres: It is a mystery, an international espionage thriller, and a love story. It is a novel about politics and religion and the Jewish diaspora, about mothers and daughters, about friends and lovers. Along the way, Brooks gives us a remarkable education. Her appetite for detail, for wanting to know how things work and why they happened, is enormous, and the chapters that describe each stage of the book's history are significant for the richness of the unique worlds evoked: the damp alleys of the crowded Jewish ghetto in Venice in the 1600s, the newly planted lime and sycamore trees on the Ringstrasse in Vienna in 1894, the rough mountain camp of Jewish partisans outside Sarajevo, the exquisitely tiled chambers of a 15th-century palace in Seville. She even evokes modern-day Boston's irascible drivers. We learn such esoterica as the fact that Muscovy ducks were confined to Mexico and Brazil in the 1400s, that certain parchments were made from a now-extinct breed of Spanish mountain sheep, that masked Venetians played high-stakes card games during Carnivale in the 1600s, not to mention fascinating facts about the methods of book conservation.
It's tempting to use the word "sprawling" to describe "People of the Book," but it's more tightly focused than that. It's kaleidoscopic, the layers of mystery deftly and tightly interlocked, shifting and realigning to reveal new patterns. The complex structure requires that alternating chapters explain the clues that Hannah discovers as she works on the haggadah, and it's satisfying to watch the mystery get solved again and again - exactly what sort of insect wing is it that Hannah finds, we wonder, and how did it get there, and what does it tell us about the haggadah's journey through time and the people who safeguarded its passage? In a way, though, Brooks is such a good writer that it's almost a shame she found herself quite so obligated to the complicated layers of plot she's woven. The chapters that imagine the haggadah's history are powerfully persuasive, but Brooks dips into the past only long enough to satisfy the requirements of her novel. The haggadah is always at the center of these chapters, but it's a peripheral character to the often compelling human stories Brooks wants to tell. Because they serve the somewhat artificial purpose of explaining the clues uncovered by Hannah, the chapters lack the organic whole of short stories, but it is a compliment to Brooks to say that they are more like incomplete novels.
"As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation," Hannah says as she holds the haggadah in her hands for the first time. "It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head." In "People of the Book," Brooks has created a novel about people divided by time and geography and culture and religion who are, despite their many differences, united by their certainty that a book is one of civilization's most sacred and powerful objects.
Carrie Brown, who teaches at Sweet Briar College, is most recently the author of "The Rope Walk."