2009, 496 p.
This book has been sitting on the shelf for a while. Now that my library has closed, I can no longer borrow piles of books that I return unread. Instead I’m having to turn to my shelves full of books that at some stage I felt I simply had to buy and which have remained in their paper bags ever since. I blame the Little Free Library down in my park too, which calls to me every time I go to the station.
Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book is a Little Free Library find. I’ve read quite a few of her books (all prior to starting this blog), Foreign Correspondent, March and Year of Wonders, which has been mentioned several times recently. I wasn’t too sure about this one. I knew that it was about a Jewish prayer book. I also knew that she had converted to Judaism, and I’m always a bit wary of people writing from a particular faith tradition.
Brooks’ book is based on the real-life story of the Sarejevo Haggadah, a brilliantly illuminated Jewish prayer book that is used at Passover. It is on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. It carries a rich and traumatic history. It was created in Spain around the year 1350 and changed owners after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. It ended up in Venice, where it was passed by the censor of the Inquisition. It was purchased by the National Museum in 1894 and sent to Vienna for work. It was hidden from the Nazis during WWII and was again threatened during the bombing of Sarajevo in 1992.
Using the actual history of the Haggadah, Brooks weaves her own story around the people through whose hands it might have passed during its turbulent voyage. Most of this is sheer imagination, although firmly within the historical constraints of the real-life story. The frame story is that of an Australian conservator, Hanna, who is called in to inspect the Haggadah before undertaking conservation work on it. As part of her painstaking inspection she notices an insect’s wing, a hair, salt residue and a wine stain. Each of these fragments branches off into the historical aspect of the novel, telling the story of how they came to rest within the pages of the book, to be discovered hundreds of years later.
And so we meet a young Partisan fighter in Sarajevo in 1940; a syphilitic bookbinder in 1890s Vienna; a 17th century Venetian rabbi; a black female Muslim illuminator in Seville in 1480 and a mixed Jewish/Converso family in the same city as the Jews are expelled in 1492.
The Hanna frame story veers close to being a mystery-thriller which sits rather at odds with the historical montages of people associated with the Haggadah over time. As all contemporary stories seem to have, there is a love interest and a problematic relationship with her mother. Brooks, probably quite intentionally, features women in the historical sections, which would have required some dogged research that at times felt heavy-handed.
But what an wonderful idea to use a real-life object that has such a vibrant story, even with all its gaps and silences. Did she need the frame story at all? I’m not really convinced that she did- but then, it would be a different book.
My rating: 7.5
Sourced from: my own bookshelves, from the Little Library in the park
I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Ha, so it takes a pandemic to make us tackle the TBR!
I know the lure of the library well… all those books on my shelves and still I come back with greedy armsful…
Thank you for reminding me of this book; it was a wonderful read that I should revisit!
I didn’t like the Hanna frame story – a bit too much – but I greatly enjoyed the story of the book. I think Brooks is better with historical fiction than contemporary perhaps.
I don´t know why writers feel that they have to have a historic AND a contemporary story running side by side. It seems to be a very popular way of writing these days. You often find it in non-fiction too.
It is a trend, I agree. I see some reasons for it – commentary on the past, drawing parallels between the two times, literary effects like irony from juxtaposition – but I don’t think it’s always obvious or necessary.
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