Wednesday, October 6, 2010

People of the Book

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book uses the storytelling device of tracing pieces of forensic evidence (an insect's wing, the book's missing clasps, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair) as the pretence to go back in time and recreate the story of the Sarajevo haggadah, a seder text that is remarkable for its lavish illustrations, which are extremely rare, given the Jewish prohibition against idolatry.

Author Geraldine Brooks's fortes are her ability to weave an engaging story that invents the path that the haggadah might have followed as it changed hands over time, and her handling of the historical context in which each of the characters lived. Brooks creates vivid and engaging history with a fine eye for the details that bring a story to life without weighing it down with over-description.

In contrast, the parallel contemporary story is weak. It explores Hanna's melodramatic relationship with her unsympathetic mother. Her jet-setting lifestyle in which she flits around the globe to drop in on her friends and professional colleagues who are renowned as the best in their respective fields, as she is, natch. And by the way, for an academic who claims to eschew slang, she sure uses a lot of it. A romance based on a brief fling with a Muslim librarian whose actions will destroy Hanna's professional credibility (How's that for the foundation for a relationship?). At least Brooks knows that she is stooping to sheer silliness when she makes reference to Mission Impossible II as she introduces the final section of the book, which deals with the plan to return the haggadah to its rightful place.

This is a really good book, mixed together with a mediocre one.

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