This one’s for book lovers — or at least for those who are fascinated by the intricacies of medieval gold leaf and vellum and how modern experts restore these precious manuscripts. For such bibliophiles, Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, People of the Book, is like CSI: The Rare Book Version.
A vivid trip through the splendors of early bookmaking, People of the Book is a suspenseful yarn about Jewish history. It’s based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah, the Hebrew holy book that was made in Barcelona around 1350. It escaped the Spanish Inquisition, endured the Nazi occupation of Europe and miraculously survived the Serbian assault on Sarajevo 10 years ago. The Haggadah is incredibly rare because it’s a sumptuously illustrated manuscript from a time when many Jews believed any images were against God’s law.
But – and this is crucial – beneath this novel’s surface of intrigue and artistry, it’s really quite simple and sentimental. People of the Book is not much more emotionally complex than Nancy Drew and the Mysterious Manuscript.
I don’t mean to badmouth Nancy Drew, and if you read People of the Book with her in mind, you’re likely to enjoy the novel. But you would expect something deeper from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Brooks’ last novel, March, which won the Pulitzer, was also an exercise in historic and literary reconstruction, filling in the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women.
Brooks was a Wall Street Journal correspondent, and it shows. She’s a tremendous researcher, and she re-creates 19th-century America or 15th-century Venice in detail. But in both novels the period details drape a very modern, rather conventional melodrama.
People of the Book, for example, follows Hannah, a rare book expert, as she restores the Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Whenever Hannah encounters a puzzling item – a blood stain, a saltwater mark – the novel flashes back to a crucial moment in the manuscript’s life. As a result, the story is an interlocked series of little mysteries that unfold over the course of the manuscript’s 700-year history.
But as this history unfolds, Brooks’ characters fall into obvious types. The Haggadah is saved at different points by enlightened Muslims. And these Muslims are invariably wise and gentle and self-sacrificing and long-suffering — they’re all saints. But too many saints in a novel make for a thin fictional universe. Similarly, the Haggadah is often threatened by anti-Semites who try to destroy it. But the bigots we meet in People of the Book are never just workaday folk, the kind who manned the Nazi death camps. Instead, one is a deranged, paranoid syphilitic, another is a self-loathing, alcoholic priest. In short, average people don’t foment prejudice here. Only villainous monsters do.
On top of this, the women through the ages who protect the Haggadah, like Hannah herself, have their troubles but they are all gutsy, intelligent, resourceful, brave, clean and reverent. It’s not just that they’re heroines – they’re contemporary feminist heroines in medieval Spain. Or 15th century Venice. At one point in 1940, for instance, a young Bosnian woman realizes the Nazis are evil because they oppose “diversity.” Diversity is a fairly recent, multicultural ideal; I doubt anyone in 1940 thought in terms of diversity. Racial purity or tolerance, yes; diversity, no.
The book parts of People of the Book are fascinating. The people parts – those were rarely convincing.
On Wednesday January 16, Geraldine Brooks will discuss People of the Book on Think at 1 p.m., and will appear at an Arts & Letters Live event at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.