People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

Viking, Penguin Group, 2008. ISBN 978-0-670-01821-5.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
Posted on 01/12/2009

Fiction: Historical

"Until you opened it, the book was nothing that an untrained eye would look at twice," says the main character in Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book. "I breathed deeply and turned the page to the parchment of the manuscript itself. This was what mattered; this was what would disclose what four centuries hard years had done to a survivor of five centuries." A rare and exquisitely illustrated Jewish book known as the Sarajevo Haggadah reemerged in 1996, having survived centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment, wars, and attempts to destroy it in the Spanish Inquisition and later by the Nazis. Australian book restorer Hanna Heath discovers small artifacts left behind in the bindings: a speck of butterfly wing, a drop of kosher wine, salt crystals, and a white cat hair. Heath works with experts around the world to learn the unique nature of these items, uncovering the tales of the brave individuals responsible for the survival of the controversial document.

A Haggadah is a piece of traditional Jewish literature, including the story of the exodus of Jews from Egypt. It is a visual guide to the ritual acts and prayers performed at the Seder dinner celebrating Passover. The Sarajevo Haggadah was an actual document that was created in 14th century Spain. It changed hands and was restored several times throughout its history and is now held by the National Museum of Sarajevo. In People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks uses the known facts and time-line of the Sarajevo Haggadah to create a fictional story of a modern-day woman restoring the book and the historical figures responsible for its safety.

I loved Brook's historic characters the most, and found myself longing for their stories to continue. My favorite was Zahra, a Moorish woman whose life is saved when she is sold to a Jewish doctor by her friend, the emira. Although she is a Muslim, Zahra paints the Sarajevo Haggadah as a gift for the doctor's son so that he can better understand the Passover. She paints herself into the family portrait in the book, stumping experts for centuries as to her identity. "Too finely dressed to be a servant, and fully participating in the Jewish rite, the identity of that African women in saffron has perplexed the book's scholars for a century," writes Brooks.

People of the Book was intellectually stimulating, based on history, and exquisitely crafted. I was intrigued from page one. It made me want to learn more about Jewish history and literature and appreciate the art of book restoration. I recommend this book for anyone who loves history, books, and a good story.

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Match and Year of Wonders as well as writer of the nonfiction books Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Brooks was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She was born and raised in Australia and lives on Martha's Vineyard with her husband and son. Visit her website.

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