People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Title: People of the Book
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Genre: fiction
ISBN: 9780670018215
Pages: 372
Year Published: 2008
Source: public library
Rating: 5/5
Reason for Reading: read Year of Wonders (also by Geraldine Brooks) a few years ago; Aussie Author Challenge
Award(s): 2008 Australian Book of the Year Award; 2008 Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award
Challenge(s): Aussie Author Challenge

Since this book is especially difficult to explain, I’m definitely copying a description of the book from an outside source, in this case it is technically an Review:

One of the earliest Jewish religious volumes to be illuminated with images, the Sarajevo Haggadah survived centuries of purges and wars thanks to people of all faiths who risked their lives to safeguard it. Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, has turned the intriguing but sparely detailed history of this precious volume into an emotionally rich, thrilling fictionalization that retraces its turbulent journey. In the hands of Hanna Heath, an impassioned rare-book expert restoring the manuscript in 1996 Sarajevo, it yields clues to its guardians and whereabouts: an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, and a white hair. While readers experience crucial moments in the book’s history through a series of fascinating, fleshed-out short stories, Hanna pursues its secrets scientifically, and finds that some interests will still risk everything in the name of protecting this treasure. A complex love story, thrilling mystery, vivid history lesson, and celebration of the enduring power of ideas, People of the Book will surely be hailed as one of the best of 2008. –Mari Malcolm

One of my favorite parts about this novel is the way it is set up. It skips from present day (1996 is almost present) back in time, but they are different times. Hanna Heath is the main character and she examines the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. Each piece she takes from it to examine–a hair, a wine stain, salt, etc.–takes us back to a different year, spanning as far back as 1480!

I love books like this. My favorite series, Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, does this as a matter of principle. True, it switches from present day to only one period of history a few hundred years ago, but the idea is the same.

Anyone interested in the history of the Jewish people will like this novel. I am not saying this from a technical point of view–it is fiction after all. But I am interested in not only the strife of the Jews during WWII, but before. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Jewish history (again, as a fictional look at it).

I looked up images of the Sarajevo Haggadah to see exactly what the illuminations (that’s illustrations) looked like. Throughout the novel, it is remarked that the illuminations are very out of place because Jewish (and apparently also Muslim) texts didn’t have pictures as they were considered icons. However, Christians were all for it. Anyways, I have attached a couple of images from the real Sarajevo Haggadah below:

Just so you know, this is the definition of a haggadah: “a book containing the liturgy for the seder service on the Jewish festival of Passover.” The novel deals with everything from the destruction of such texts during WWII by the Third Reich and also the carnage concerning such texts during the Inquisition, hundreds of years before.


Favorite quotes/passages from the book:

“At first, Lola was a little afraid of Serif, who was almost as old as her father. but his gentle, courtly manners soon put her at her ease. For a while, she couldn’t say what it was about him that was so different from other people she had known. And then one day, as he patiently drew her out on some subject or another, listening to her opinion as if it were worthy of his consideration, and then guiding her subtly to a fuller view of the issue, she realized what the difference was. Serif, the most learned person she had ever met, was also the only person who never let her feel the least bit stupid.” (p81)

Those sorts of people, make the best teachers. I have had amazing teachers who have done this with me, and I hope, someday, I can do the same thing with my students.

“So, my good father, you go and write the order to burn that book, as your church requires of you. And I will say nothing to the printing house, as my conscience requires of me. Censura praevia or censure repressiva, the effect is the same. Either way, a book is destroyed. Better you do it than have us so intellectually enslaved that we do it for you.” (p156)

I have to agree with the rabbi who is speaking this quote (to a Catholic priest). It is better to do what your conscience tells you and have someone destroy what you do, than to not do something you feel is right because others don’t like it. I try to live this way…

“…I have spent many nights, lying awake here in this room, thinking that the haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. 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.” (p360)

I wish everyone in the world had this view. A humanistic approach would probably solve so many problems that are brought on by people who view others negatively because they are different. It’s called coexistence! We do it with animals, but not with humans? Makes no sense to me…

4 thoughts on “People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

  1. Dominique says:

    Great review! I read this a year or so ago. I really enjoyed the bits set in the past, but I felt that the present day sections let the book down a little; the characters weren’t that interesting etc. But overall it was a great book. I love the last quote you cited “That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” I’ve also read Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which I think you’d really enjoy if you haven’t already read it.

    • Kristie says:

      Yes, I have read Year of Wonders and really enjoyed it as well. I agree that the historic parts were more interesting than the present-day parts.

      I saw a review of this said it tried to be the DaVinci Code, but wasn’t fast-paced enough or cliff-hanging enough. Do you think it tried, but failed to be DaVinci Code?

      • Dominique says:

        I haven’t actually read The DaVinci Code, but I’ve seen the movie. So from my limited view I think the modern day section was written in a similar style to what I’d imagine The DaVinci Code is, kind of pulpy thriller ish if that makes sense. And I suppose the modern characters are both in curator/scholar/expert type jobs. I imagine the structure is pretty different, The DaVinci Code doesn’t switch between the past and the present right?
        I can’t really compare them much more without having read it. 🙂

      • Kristie says:

        The structure is, I think, very different. While the DaVinci Code is all in present day, People of the Book is not. Plus, the present-day parts of People of the Book span over a long time, a few months and then, even, 6 years later! But the DaVinci Code actually takes place quickly in only a few days, why it is much more fast-paced. I think the only similarity between the two is the role of the main character as a scholarly expert in their area.
        PS- Sorry I assumed you had read the DaVinci Code. Bad habit of mine, sometimes, thinking people have read everything I have 🙂

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