People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks 39

People of the Book, is the most recent novel of Geraldine Brooks.  I will read any damn thing she writes.

“The Book” is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries old book precious not just for its age and craftmanship, but for the fact that it is illustrated, which was a serious breach of the rules back in the day.  The premise is that the Sarajevo Haggadah was rescued from its museum home during the Bosnian War and in 1996, the museum is preparing to put it back on display.  An Australian conservationist has been asked to study it, repair what should be repaired and write instructions on how best to keep it for the future.

While it is not at all the point of the book, Hanna, the expert in question, makes a distinction between “restoration” and “conservation”.  She maintains that to attempt to restore the book to its original state would be to lose some of its history forever.  So the book keeps its crappy 19th century binding, for example, because that reatains some of its authentic…whatever.

The novel shifts from Hanna’s work (and personal life) in 1996 and several historical points in the history of the Haggadah.  For example, the first thing Hanna finds is the piece of an insect’s wing.  The next chapter is Sarajevo, 1940, telling the story of the Jewish girl who finds herself smuggled out of town with the Book (by the Muslim curator of the museum), before the Nazis catch either of them.  With each shift, the history goes further back and it is totally fascinating.

The last shift made me a bit cranky, but it rather brought the plot back full circle, and led to the discovery that SPOILERS the original artist was a Muslim woman.  So…forgiven.

Brooks has a bit too much fun with the Inquisition for my taste.  I just don’t do that Spanish Inquisition.  And when a “history” chapter ended, I was always left with a “But.  What happened next?”  Which ticked me off, but was pretty realistic.  I also appreciated the ongoing theme of times and places when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully.  And when they didn’t.  Finally, Brooks kindly gives us an Afterword, noting the history that inspired her, the research that she did, and the stuff she totally made up.

I loved this book.  I just regret that my copy is a beat up trade paperback.

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