The latest novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March is ambitious yet succeeds in captivating its audience. With themes of art, conservation, religious persecution, and history that span over 500 years, this book could be intimidating to some. But any fears are immediately set to rest with the introduction of the first-person narrator, Hanna Heath, whose casual delivery and humor make for easy reading. Here's Hanna as she prepares to be the first person to touch the manuscript in a century:
"As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head."
Hanna's story, set in the present-day,
alternates with the manuscript's journey,
which is revealed backwards. As Hanna tries
to unravel the mysteries of the artifacts
she uncovers, the reader is plunged into a
story about each artifact, set in that time.
Brooks's skill is such that she writes about
history in a familiar way, with well-drawn
characters you come to care about. The flow
of the novel is never interrupted despite
the jumps in the timeline.
Upon reading the first "flashback," you might wonder how the story within a story is relevant to the plot. Have faith in Brooks' good, succinct descriptions and her storytelling ability, but prepare yourself for some heartbreak and unanswered questions. Brooks provides enough information to explain the origin of each artifact, but leaves gaps in the story to allow for imagination to work. The reader still ends up knowing more than Hanna, which gives the book a kind of edge.
The manuscript in question is a Haggadah, the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt that is read by Jews during Passover. Clearly, there is symbolism in Brooks' selection of a Haggadah. But the novel isn't just about the stories within, or Hanna's work on the Haggadah. Between the developments in Hanna's personal and professional life, there are plenty of plot twists to propel the book along.
By the end, the Haggadah's value will truly be appreciated, along with the sacrifice and suffering that went into preserving it. 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's larger message, one that's particularly apt today, could ultimately be about how diverse cultures influence and enrich one another.
About the Author
In her books, Geraldine Brooks likes assuming the personas of different genders and times. Her 2001 novel, Year of Wonders, is set in 17th century England. March, is told from a man's perspective during the Civil War. She is innately familiar with some of the locales she writes about. Not only is she a native Australian, but she used to cover crises in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal. She is married to Tony Horwitz, author of a number of non fiction works including Blue Latitudes. They have one child and three dogs, and divide their time between homes in Marthas Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Sydney, Australia.
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This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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