Summary and book reviews of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book

By Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2008,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2009,
    672 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa A. Goldstein

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About this Book

Book Summary

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March, the journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book’s mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book’s journey from its salvation back to its creation.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city’s rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah’s extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna’s investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is at once a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity, an ambitious, electrifying work by an acclaimed and beloved author.

(Pages 257-258)

When the sun had set and darkness sheltered her from the eyes of the curious, Ruth Ben Shoushan walked into the sea, the nameless infant tight against her breast, until she stood waist deep. She unwrapped him, throwing the swaddling cloth over her head. His brown eyes blinked at her, and his small fists, free of constriction, punched at the air. "Sorry, my little one," she said gently, and then thrust him under the dark surface.

The water closed around him, touching every inch of his flesh. She had a firm grip around his upper arm. She let go. The water had to take him.

She looked down at the small, struggling form, her face determined, even as she sobbed. The swell rose and slapped against her. The tug of the receding wave was about to pull the infant away. Ruti reached out and grasped him firmly in her two hands. As she lifted him from the sea, water sluiced off his bare, shining skin in a shower of brightness. She held him up ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book

Hanna Heath has cultivated a life of exquisite detachment. Raised by an aloof and often absent mother, she has eschewed any kind of deep emotional involvement. But—as an expert on rare books and an Australian whose nationality makes her the least controversial political choice to inspect a priceless Hebrew codex—Hanna is about to be plunged into a dangerous drama that will force her to confront both her past and the passions she has worked so hard to conceal.

It is 1996 when Hanna first flies to Sarajevo. The city's peace is new and still tenuous, but the opportunity to inspect the famous Sarajevo Haggadah is a career maker that she cannot pass up. A lavishly illuminated medieval Hebrew text, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

The title encapsulates it all: it's about the people of the book, because if not for them, the Haggadah would not have survived. Brooks' larger message, one that's particularly apt today, could ultimately be about how diverse cultures influence and enrich one another.   (Reviewed by Lisa A. Goldstein).

Full Review Members Only (746 words).

Media Reviews
The Christian Science Monitor - Yvonne Zipp

The occasional heavy-handedness, as well as the fact that every single story is loaded with portent about the treatment of the Jewish people (and women) over the centuries, makes it impossible to shake off the knowledge that Brooks is always hovering over the pages, a benevolent professor conducting a history lesson in the importance of tolerance.

New York Times - Janet Maslin

"For the librarians," says the dedication page of Geraldine Brooks's new novel. That's an understatement. What librarian could resist a novel that has the word book in its title, is centered on an intrepid book conservator, exults in book-preservation exotica and has a plot about a rare book with a long, fraught and serpentine history? But the intense bibliographic appeal of People of the Book turns out to be a mixed blessing. It lands Ms. Brooks neck-deep in research. It overburdens her tale in ways that make it more admirable than gripping.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

The peripatetic tome embodies the long interrelationship — sometimes fruitful, often fraught — between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But too often, you sense Brooks behind the scenes, pulling strings. B

Chicago Sun-Times Cheryl L Reed

Brooks is not a stylist. Her writing is descriptive without the pileup of clever adjectives. Having learned to write economically while a Wall Street Journal reporter, Brooks dispenses with events in her novel that in another author's hand would take pages. Her use of the dual narrative probably seemed like a nifty way of enlivening dusty details, but its construct detracts from the otherwise fascinating account of a booker whodunit.

Los Angeles Times - Emily Barton

A.S. Byatt published her literary mystery Possession almost 18 years ago, and it's been a long dry season for the genre since -- perhaps because books about books don't naturally present many occasions for derring-do. Geraldine Brooks has, however, half-found and half-invented a swashbuckling book and, despite occasional quirks, woven a tale that's haunting and satisfying.

Library Journal - Barbara Hoffert

Each story is engrossing and deftly woven into the narrative, though the telling is sometimes facile or cloying. Nevertheless, this latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March) is a good addition to most libraries and excellent for discussion groups.

Kirkus Reviews

Rich suspense based on a true-life literary puzzle, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks.

Publishers Weekly - Margot Livesey

Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

Great historical novel
Geraldine Brooks has a great talent for combining mystery, family conflict, and religious persecution within a framework of historical truth that makes this novel really engrossing. The way she ties the seemingly insignificant clues together and to ...   Read More

Amanda (A Bookshelf Monstrosity)

People of the Book
Man, I love big, fat books in which I can totally get lost. And this book, spanning multiple countries over 500 years, is the ultimate saga covering art, religious persecution, book conservation, and more. I know that the length of the book can seem ...   Read More

linda McG

Journeys
I loved this book. It took me on a journey I've never traveled before.

PDXReader

Good historical fiction
I really loved the idea of tracing an important book back through history using clues left in its binding. The parts of this novel that focused on the object's past and on the people who had been involved in its handling were excellent and ...   Read More

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Did You Know?

  • People of the Book is a work of fiction inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah - all the characters are imaginary, as are most of the events.

    Extensive photographs and a brief description of what is known of the Sarajevo Haggadah's history are available at Sarajevo.net/haggadah.

  • A Haggadah contains the order of the Passover Seder (a ritual feast held during Passover). Haggadah, ...

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