Friday, October 29, 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Australian author Geraldine Brooks was inspired by a real object, a lavishly-illustrated medieval Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book escaped destruction several times and those saviours included Muslim librarians and Catholic priests.

The fictional account begins in Sarajevo in 1996, when the war in Bosnia has just barely ended. Hanna Heath is an Australian rare book expert hired to examine and restore the haggadah. During the conservation process, Hanna discovers minute clues to the book's enigmatic past. In a series of flashbacks to progressively older times, the artifacts uncover the mystery of the book's history and creation.

The present-day storyline revolves around Hanna's troubled relationship with her mother, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and Hanna's romantic involvement with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the National Museum and custodian of the haggadah. The romance aspect rather detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book, but that is a minor quibble. I loved the glimpses into earlier times and the puzzle-solving aspects of the story.

Readalikes (well, I can't think of any book really similar... so consider these tangential readalongs): The Spanish Pearl by Catherine Friend (for readers who enjoyed the section with the lesbian romance set in Moorish Spain); Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (for those fascinated by the pigments used in the haggadah); The World to Come by Dara Horn (for a Jewish experience told in two timelines); Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (for what Ozren Karaman's experience might have been like while his city was under siege); and Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx (for another narrative that follows an object through history).

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