As I said in an earlier post, I like a book that challenges me. I am most entertained when I am taken to a place or time or into the life of someone that is new to me. I also enjoy a book that employs extraordinary writing.
Geraldine Brooks’ 2009 novel, People of the Book, does all of the above. It is the story of Hannah Heath, a rare book expert, who is called upon to examine and restore a most unusual Jewish tome. It is called a Haggadah—a Hebrew text that tells the ancient story of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. But this Jewish holy book is filled with illuminations—brightly colored miniature illustrations, generally in the borders and margins of books, hand painted and often gilded with gold and silver pigments—similar to those in classical Christian bibles.
The book itself represents a puzzle. Who created it? Who owned it? How did it get into the hands of curators at a museum in Bosnia?
As Hannah examines the book and discovers in its binding clues to its history, the reader is taken back into time, chapter by chapter, generation by generation, and into the lives and cultures of those who had a hand in the production, passage, and safe keeping of the book.
Author Brooks weaves the modern day story of Hannah and her personal relationships with chapters told from the POV and, in some cases, the unique voices of each of the historical figures associated with the centuries old book. As she takes us farther and farther back in time, Brooks crafts each character’s narrative with words, cadences, and even styles of thought unique to the period, class, and culture of the characters.
Every once in a while I come across a book that I find myself not rushing to finish. This was a book I deliberately chose to leave on my nightstand. I resisted the temptation to pick it up for those five to ten minute downtimes when you want to read something, anything just to keep the wait from being boring. I wanted to savor this book. It was my comfort-time reading. The perfect book to take my mind off the mundane issues of my day, and allow me to focus on and marvel at characters, craft, and intrigue of a story well told.
Australian-born Gerdine Brooks has written several other books, all historical fiction. She garnered a Pultizer for fiction in 2006 for March, a novel based on a character from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Her most recent release is the historical novel Caleb’s Crossing,which takes the reader into the 1665 world of a young man from Martha's Vineyard who becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.
At the end of People of the Book Brooks describes the research that went into this story, and it is phenomenal. She is a true craftswoman, both in creating an intriguing and memorable story and in the way she uses words and language to take us to places that, for some of us readers, we could never have imagined going.
People of the Book is so rich and delicious that I plan to start it over again and read it a second time.