People of the Book was hyped a bit to be a new suspense thriller with religious overtones like The Da Vinci Code. I wouldn’t really say, judging by the literary merits (or really, the lack thereof) of the latter novel, that that would be a positive comparison. And in terms of an edge-of-your-seat page-turner, it doesn’t really live up to that kind of hype, anyway.
But as an interesting historical novel based on a real object that spins out some hypotheses for how it came to be, Geraldine Brooks’ novel is a winner. She is a much better writer than Dan Brown, too, thank goodness. People of the Book is a richly woven tale that blends strands of mystery, suspense, religion and human nature into a fine tapestry just as rich and detailed as the object on which it is based.
The 500-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah is a Hebrew manuscript found in Sarajevo (hence its name) in this century that has gone through many hands and traveled Europe on a circuitous journey. It has been saved from destruction more than once by Muslims. It may be deemed unusual just for that fact; however, it is also unusual in that it is a Jewish artifact with colorful, detailed illustrations — usually Hebrews did not add illumination to their texts.
Brooks creates heroine Hanna Heath, a rare book expert, to tie the novel together. Hanna is asked to analyze and conserve the manuscript, and in so doing, she finds “clues” to its origin and long journey: a fragment of insect wing, a white hair, wine stains and salt crystals.
These “clues” then take us one by one into the mythical past of the Haggadah as imagined by Brooks. The character development is well done, as befitting a prize-winning writer. And the stories are wonderful snapshots of interracial and interfaith relations throughout history. At times, of course, Jews, Christians and Muslims have clashed. But at other times, these “people of the book” have lived together in harmony, as neighbors.
And this is the real theme of this novel. By humanizing characters of different faiths and backgrounds over the past 500 years who could have come in contact with this real-life manuscript, Brooks reminds us that it’s not about the religion or our other differences. It’s about what we have in common. And it’s also about art, literature and valuing that which is beautiful.
People of the Book is not an edge-of-your-seat page-turner, but it’s still worth a read.
Rated: Moderate, for two to three occurrences of strong language, more frequent uses of moderate language, and some scenes of sexuality.