People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator, arrives in Sarajevo days after the war ends to help preserve a long lost tome of the Jewish faith, the Haggadah. The book, which was believed lost, has turned up at the Sarajevo museum and needs to be restored. She is altogether surprised to have been called, honored at the request, and scared she will not be able to accomplish what she has been dispatched to do.
With security tight, she sets about her task only to create more mystery and intrigue than she ever has with her work. Several odd artifacts are found in the book including a butterfly wing, a long silver hair, blood, and indentations from long missing clips; each a mystery in their own right. In putting together a paper on her findings, she begins her research only to be baffled by more questions than answers. Seeking advice from her revered teacher and friend, she does not find the answers but only more questions. She does her best to fill in the blanks and in the process becomes one of the people of the book.
Told in between Hanna’s story are the tales of the people who helped to create, protect, and unknowingly, become part of the book and its history. Brooks introduces us to all the people who have touched the book in some way and the places it has traveled through history. She tells us the tales of the inscriptions, the brilliant illustrations, and the mystery surrounding the missing claps. She brings to life the history of not only the people but the book itself and its impact on the individuals it has touched and enlightened.
When Hanna is forced to doubt herself over the authenticity of the Haggadah before it goes on display at the Sarajevo museum, she takes on a new project and follows her work to the Australian outback. The work, which involves preserving native works that are part of her country’s history, allows her to hide from the world at large. Now part of the book’s history, Hanna is once again pulled into its realm, and in a final act to preserve it, becomes involved in a ploy to save it one final time.
The ending, which seems more fitting to a mystery caper than this book, is distracting and completely unbelievable after one has become acquainted with the characters involved. While Hanna’s story is certainly the glue that binds everything together, it is also the least interesting however; it provides a backdrop for the other stories and a time frame to place the other stories into.
Brooks weaves a wide-ranging tale that encompasses all the individuals that had a hand in creating and saving the book. Her story travels across time and religions and comes to life with her elegant descriptions. The book takes center stage of this intriguing tale and one can feel the soft parchment, smell the dust, and hear the creaking of the bindings barely holding the contents together. In the end, it becomes the most fascinating element of the story.