The Sarajevo Haggadah is a Jewish illuminated manuscript from 14th-century Spain that is on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Very little is definitively known about its history. In People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks takes what is known and creates a speculative history that draws inspiration from the known facts while filling in some of the long gaps in the book’s history. The result takes in such events as the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Bosnian War, and other events involving (usually) religious persecution. Throughout all of these events, some person—or group of people—takes care of the Haggadah, some to preserve its beauty, some to preserve the word of God, and some to preserve knowledge and history. Together, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who encounter and protect this book demonstrate that true religious faith need not require the destruction of all things outside that faith.
To tell the Haggadah’s story, Brooks uses the popular device of having a modern researcher search for clues that lead to the truth. In this case, the modern protagonist is Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservationist who is called to Sarajevo to examine the book. Hannah herself has some relationship issues that end up affecting her research. Her mother disapproves of her career choice, she doesn’t know anything about her father, and she’s uninterested in making long-term commitments to men. Chapters about Hannah alternate with chapters about the sources of the stains, hairs, and bits of detritus that Hannah finds in the book.
The historical chapters are the best parts of the book. Brooks has a real gift for description, and she is well able to help readers understand the conflicts within and around her characters. Families are torn apart by circumstance and by choice, and characters are forced into situations that require them to deny their very identity in order to live. The tragic stories sometimes veer into being melodramatic, but for the most part, I enjoyed the glimpses into the past. It was nice to read about places and times when people who were under pressure to be at war found ways to make peace.
Hannah’s story is less effective. When Brooks focuses on Hannah’s actual research, the narrative works, but the rest feels tacked on, almost as if she’s trying to give readers a conflict that is easier to relate to than the ones surrounding the Haggadah. But Hannah’s relationship with her mother, the center of her story, is too dysfunctional to be believable. There’s a running theme in these sections about the struggle women of Hannah’s mother’s generation faced in establishing successful careers. This more meaty content feels thrown in to give Hannah’s story weight, but in the end Hannah and her mother’s story feels trite, especially when set against the violent life or death situations that the other characters face.
The other serious problem is with the ending. Almost out of the blue, the research story turns into a thriller. Research thrillers can work. For example, the thrill-filled ending worked fine in the otherwise less satisfying and more flawed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane because that book never felt serious. An outrageous ending made sense. Here, however, it feels like something out of a completely different book. I had a similar problem with Year of Wonders, which suddenly became a romance novel in its final moments. Maybe Brooks just doesn’t do endings well. (I’ve completely forgotten how March ended, so it must not have made an impression either way.)
Overall, People of the Book is a well-written novel that is alternately fascinating and frustrating. For me, that’s Geraldine Brooks in a nutshell. The good parts are good enough that I’m always interested in her books, but the not-so-good parts keep me from being totally satisified.