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"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks, audiobook narrated by Edwina Wren

Updated on July 2, 2015
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The Sarajevo Haggadah

The story of an illuminated manuscript within a book penned by Geraldine Brooks. In my reading of (or listening to) fiction revolving around art history such as The Art Forge and Stealing Athena, I have come across epic tales that span not one but two eras. In The Art Forge, the author has two timelines (present day Boston and nineteenth century France) with Edgar Degas' paintings acting as the connector of the two different settings. Stealing Athena has the story go between High Classical era Athens, Georgian England, and Ottoman Turkey, all bound together by the Parthenon Marbles.

Instead of just two timelines, Brooks goes further by including multiple eras in her tale of (mostly) fiction. Whether its World War Two era Bosnia, Austria during the Viennese Secession, Muslim controlled Spain, or Inquisition choked Italy, Brooks brings these (at first glance) disparate places together with a book called the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The Conservator/Detective

In between exploring the Haggadah's past, we follow the story of book conservator Hanna Heath and her attempt to uncover the manuscripts' secrets. In fact, her finding stains and other minuscule details in the Haggadah would act as pieces of a puzzle that Brooks puts together to create a history behind the manuscript. While she hunts down the clues, she will learn revelations about herself and her family.

The Haggadah's importance?

On the Haggadah, People treat it as a novelty because it's a Jewish manuscript that uses illustrations. I don't remember feeling all that surprised. When I started taking art history classes, I learned about the imagery found in the Dura Europos Synagogue. When I did research for this review, I came across Haggadahs made after the Sarajevo's creation that had illustrations reenacting scenes from Jewish texts.

To sum up my point, history has proven that people will always have a willingness to find loopholes in even the most divine of laws.

Also, the book claims that the Haggadah's existence created a complete upheaval in art history learning. This is the first time I have heard of the Haggadah, and I have taken classes on manuscripts.

Tragedy, Bigotry, Unity, and Survival

Jumping through various events in history, we see people surviving horrors, commit horrors, and everything in between. In the subtext and regular text of the book, Brooks shows the highs of unity between different groups of people and the lows of atrocities created in the name of oppressing them. Furthermore, she lets us inside the heads of people so terrible, pitiful, and certain that they were doing the right thing when they torture, murder, censor, or insult based on their perverted ideologies. Especially disturbing when people assault or prey on other people (mostly teenage girls) and they act so casual about it. As though if the very thought of not committing those acts would come off as violating some ingrained rule. Furthermore, the line between oppressed and oppressor blurs when you see people deal with prejudice who then use their own bigoted line of thinking to hurt people different from them. Awful systems where the Haggadah lived a command away from total destruction.

Praising women's work

Throughout the book, the text appreciates the women for the work they do. Whether they were neurosurgeons, homemakers, conservators, retired harem members turned unofficial tour guides (favorite character), or painters, Brooks wrote them in such a way to show they were important.

I did have one observation on Hanna Heath's mother, who worked as a neurosurgeon. The text writes of her having a top-notch reputation as a result of her strides in the field. Thinking about this, I am surprised that the mother didn't have to face stigmas that single moms deal with or criticized her for her self-confidence.

This has happened in real life.

Then again, if Brooks added this, it would have made this already dense and epic book extremely unwieldy.


ETA 3-6-2015: Forgot about this. There was mention of Hanna's mother dealing with sexism early in her career, but not enough to hinder her. Barely enough during her successful career.

ETA: 7-3-2015: Rewrote a sentence and corrected an error. Didn't like that sentence.

Rewrote it again.

Hypocrisy?

Characters making morally questionable choices that can range from understandable to extremely awful happens frequently in this novel. However, I think the author may have missed something in one of her creations. While Brooks casts Heath as a flawed, but talented person, she still commits actions that I don't think Brooks realizes makes her a hypocrite when she shows anger at another person who commits the same action. For example, Heath learns that her lover has a son who, as a result of the Bosnian War, remains comatose. Despite her lover's warning to not try to help him, Heath goes and gives x-rays of his son's skull to her surgeon mother. This issue never comes up again and Heath's secret stays with her. Even when Heath finds out that her lover had replaced the Haggadah in the Bosnia National Museum with a fake one, she reacts in anger at him. While I found her anger justified, I do think that Brooks forgot that Hanna also went behind her boyfriend's back.

Gloves create glaring errors

Heath's hypocrisy does not act as the only problem I had with the character. At the beginning of the book, when Hanna handles the Haggadah for the first time, there's no mention of her using gloves. This error elevates itself to glaring when she later mentions how she does not want to touch the book without gloves or when she shows frustration at the Bosnia National Museum's less than efficient system of preserving old books.

Furthermore, Heath committed actions that left me wondering. When she complains of her hands damaged as a result of learning about materials used to make manuscripts, I found myself wondering (I think), "Why doesn't she use gloves?"

In all fairness, I cut glass at my job, and I have only used gloves when absolutely necessary.

Also, the Bosnia National Museum's security cameras do not have timestamps in their videos.

Overall

Despite some errors and flaws, I loved this book. Brooks created an expansive universe and refused to let it become unwieldy. The characters were memorable, and the story a beautiful triumph.

I did some online research about this book, and I noticed that she seemed to follow the manuscript's timeline fairly well. All Brooks did was fill in the blanks of that timeline and make it come to life.

People of the Book

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