What I do is me. For that I came. I had to start the review with this because it is a favourite line of mine from a favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "As kingfishers catch fire". However, even though it appears twice in the book, I haven't quite worked out whether it contributes anything significant to the book. Still, it gave me a little fillip of joy, so for that I am grateful.
Back to the book. It comprises two stories, both working in opposite directions. The forwards moving story is a first person one told by Hanna Heath, a book conservator who is brought in to conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah but who also has a rather fraught story of her own. The backwards moving story imagines, through a series of mostly third person tales, how the haggadah was created and made its way from Spain to Sarajevo. It's an interesting structure and makes sense I guess: when telling a person's life suspense and interest - where are we going, what will happen next - tends to increase the more we move forward into the murky future, while for an object, building, event etc the suspense and interest can increase the more we move backwards into the murkier and murkier past (a bit like an archaeological dig in which you move from the known to the less and less known). These two contrasting movements in the book nicely balance each other: the two stories move progressively, in opposite directions, away from the book's starting moment.
It's an enjoyable and readable book with, I think, some worthy goals, the most important of these being "that diverse cultures influence and enrich each other". (p. 400) As Brooks envisages it, the history of the book involves both conflict and co-operation between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Different traditions are involved in both the creation of the haggadah and its survival - and, while many of the people who cross its path suffer badly in its wake, there are others who are enriched by it. And then, Hanna herself, ends up with with a man of another culture and religious background. This point regarding cultures influencing and enriching each other is expanded to include the notion of promoting harmony between them when, near the end of the novel, the Sarajevan librarian who had saved the book says "It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox". (p. 451/2) These two quotes sound a little preachy but in fact this heavy-handedness occurs mainly towards the novel's close...and occasionally in Hanna's story.
The stories which imagine the haggadah's creation and survival are well-researched and told, and are linked to Hanna through the various "artefacts" she finds when conserving the book, artefacts such as a butterfly wing, a wine stain mixed with salt, and a white hair. These stories, each one pretty self-contained, start in Sarajevo in 1940, and move back to Seville in 1480. They make rivetting reading, so much so that we want to know what happens to the characters in them when their role in the haggadah ends. Maybe Brooks will come back to them sometime in the future? She does have a skill at evoking historical periods.
But, the book has a weakness, and that is in Hanna's story. Her voice feels forced and her story is rather melodramatic. Brooks packs too many "dramas" into Hanna's story - unsupportive mother, lost father, critically ill child, cross-cultural romance, theft, forgery and a bit of counter-skullduggery - making Hanna a rather cardboard character, which is disappointing as she frames the story and is meant to be its glue.
Despite its faults though, People of the book is an engaging read with a sincere heart. I'd certainly recommend it - there are worse books to read out there.
(Book cover: Thanks to Harper Collins Australia)