Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review -- People of the Book

People of the Book People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hanna Heath, a brilliant, young, ancient document expert, has been asked by a Bosnian museum to restore an ancient Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. Through her conservation efforts, Hanna finds five clues to the lost history of this priceless artifact: an animal hair, a butterfly wing, a wine stain, a saltwater stain and a missing binding. Thus begins an intricate, CSI: 15th century, narration told by the brilliant, Geraldine Brooks.

When I read this a year and a half ago I wrote the following: "Geraldine Brooks is a genius when it comes to writing historical fiction. Her fictional account of the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Jewish prayer book) was brilliant. However, she was not nearly as successful with the flash-forward/present day narrative. And the Hollywood/Mission Impossible ending was really disappointing. All that said...I still loved the book and all her previous novels as well. She has become my new favorite writer."

Much of my opinion stands firm. I thought her individual stories about each of these various “clues” were outstanding. In fact, each chapter could fully be developed into a book of their own. The detail and research she brought to each time period was flawless – I felt like I was living in the Venice Jewish ghetto, or being persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition. But re-reading it for the second time, took away the magic I felt the first time around. The links between each time period were cloudier than I remember and left me more confused.

Her narrator, Hanna, although a proclaimed, wunderkind, comes off unprofessional when she hooks up with the Bosnia curator after their 1st meeting. The secondary storyline about Hanna, her mother, and her unknown Jewish heritage, just didn’t work for me. Oh, and her mother – what a piece of work! As I said above, Brooks, modern day voice and story line, just wasn’t as convincing or successful. And the ending – without giving away any spoilers – was a copout.

For the sensitive reader: this book was far more graphic than I remember. If you want to know about 19th century venereal disease – this is the book for you! Also the brutality against women is very detailed.

I initially gave this book 4 stars – now, I would give it 3 or 3 ½. I still love Geraldine Brooks (I recommend both Year of Wonders and March) and will read whatever she publishes in the future.

Book source: personal copy

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