Like some of the other novels I tend to read, People of the Book appeals to a particular type of audience rather than the general public. Australian author Geraldine Brooks’s fascinating historical novel spans many centuries while remaining firmly anchored in the present, with a focus on the Sarajevo Haggadah. The title, of course, is a play on words, as the story line interweaves themes about that actual book and themes about the Jewish people: the people of the Book. Although this medieval manuscript is very much real, many (most?) of the characters and events in People of the Book are invented by Brooks. If this is history, it’s fictionalized history. It is a novel, after all.
There are many technical details of book restoration in People of the Book. Probably some readers would find these details excessive and even boring, but for me they helped bring the story to life; I wish Brooks had included more of them. The historical accounts of Jewish history, especially the parts about the Jews in Spain and in Bosnia, were equally captivating and likely to attract a larger audience than book restoration would. The occasional romantic episodes, on the other hand, seem to be included solely in order to attract a larger audience, and to my mind they merely distracted from the story.
As a former resident and current habitué of Cambridge (Mass.), I can’t discuss People of the Book without mentioning the author’s right-on-target description of that city. You would swear that she was from Cambridge, not from Australia:
(I discovered later that Brooks had spent a significant amount of time at Harvard, so the accuracy is not so surprising after all.)
The descriptions and history of Sarajevo were (to me) the most moving parts of the novel. When Yugoslavia fell apart in the ’90s, the Sarajevo Haggadah needed to be hidden, as it had been in many earlier periods of conflict, especially the Nazi era. Having been to the multi-ethnic Sarajevo twice in the ’70s, I found it particularly poignant to read about it in this sad context.
If your experiences or interests match anything I’ve mentioned here — book restoration, history of books, Jewish History, Haggadahs, Spain, Yugoslavia, medievalism — read this novel!