Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book

<p><em>Philip Jones writes:</em><br />
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Books about books have become a popular sub-genre recently. And I seem to have read a few of them: Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestselling Shadow of the Wind; Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale; and Arturo Perez-Reverte's devilish tale The Dumas Club.<br />
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But books about books can be disappointing, with the author overly fascinated by the object of their affection to spin a tale of substance. Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks' latest novel The People of the Book (4th Estate, January 2008) sets out to avoid this problem by focusing the narrative on those who handle the book during its life.<br />
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The fiction was inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 15th-century illuminated Hebrew manuscript rescued during the Bosnian war from the city's fire-gutted library by a Muslim librarian; the second time the book had been preserved by a Muslim, after Islamic scholar Dervis Korkut rescued it from the Nazis during World War II.<br />
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The content of the Haggadah is all but immaterial to Brooks' novel: it is as the heroine Hannah Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, dissects the book's pages in order to discover its past that the story comes alive. &quot;To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history,&quot; we are told through Heath, &quot;to a certain extent damage and wear reflect that history&quot;.<br />
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The structure allows the author to construct a series of historical vignettes as the book in question is passed from generation to generation, with each protagonist contributing to that &quot;damage and wear&quot;--from an insect wing trapped in the pages of the parchment during its flight from Nazi book burners, to a stain of wine split on the book by the Inquisitor's official book censor.<br />
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If I had a negative criticism, I would say that the historical sketches mean that the narrative jumps around, with Heath's own story strand perhaps the least strong within the novel. The sketches are also quite short. I would have liked more on the gambling addicted Venetian rabbi Judah Aryeh or Lola the second world war Bosnian resistance fighter.<br />
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But perhaps Brooks was conscious of straying too far off the page--though the people of the book illuminate her vision, in the end it is difficult not to warm to her skill in keeping her book all about the book.</p>