Thursday, March 7, 2013

CBR V Review #15: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.” 

This audiobook was like a study in accents.  I'd definitely recommend listening instead of reading it, since it's fun to hear all the different cultures represented.

People of the Book is the story of The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated prayer book that survived hundreds of years and frequent brushes with its own destruction.  It's loosely based on fact - the Haggadah is a real book, one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world.  The book was created in Barcelona around 1350, and currently resides in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, both of which are facts presented by the book.  Many of the events in this book did involve the Haggadah, but the details are mostly, if not entirely, fictitious.  The infusion of the actual history involved is what makes this book such a compelling read.

The narrative is framed using one of my favorite devices - starting in a contemporary setting and jumping back to reveal pieces of the past as it goes along.  In this case, our story starts in 1996 with Hannah Heath, an Aussie conservator hired to preserve and research the book, which has been found in Sarajevo.  The history of the book is cued by different things Hannah finds within the Haggadah and researches, things like a stain or a hair.  Each time she investigates something of that nature, it sets the narrative on the path of that segment of the book's history, starting with the first section in WWII, and gradually moving all the way back to Barcelona and the book's creation.  In between, you get to see Hannah's personal journeys, both related to the book and not.  There's also some closure at the end that is completely fictional, and I wager was put in there for the sake of suspense.  I have mixed feelings about it, but for the sake of preventing spoilers, I'll leave it at that.

Hannah is an excellent character, and a wonderful thread to keep the whole tale together.  Her relationships, even the ones unrelated to the book like the one with her mother, feel very real.  I was connected enough to her throughout to get protective of her later in the book, and I think that's telling.  There are a LOT of characters in this to keep straight, but since they are all contained within their own pieces of the story, it's never really hard to remember who is who.

My one complaint with this book is its length.  I have no idea how long it is in terms of pages since I listened to it, but it's one of the longer audiobooks I've enjoyed.  This by itself would be no problem - I read books of great length on the regular.  The issue here is that it *feels* long.  I'm not sure if it needed fewer pieces to the story, or less time spent on some of them, or what.  But I found my attention drifting from time to time, and sometimes checked to see just how far along I was in the book's progression.  That doesn't make it a bad book, but it kept me from giving it 5 stars.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, you'll probably dig this.


  1. I really liked this novel, great review. I liked her novel Year of the Plague even more so it might be worth looking at.

  2. Do you mean Year of Wonders? I was thinking of adding that to my To Read shelf, and if you liked this and think I should check it out, I definitely will!

  3. Yes, oops. It's been a while since I read it. It was very good, though.