Tuesday, October 29, 2013

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks

A Story of Survival
Its being on my shelf for years is not the motivation that drove me to finally read this book.  In my preparation for writing a series of Sunday School lessons based on the book of Nehemiah, I came across an anonymous commentary entitled A People of the Book The writer pointed out that reading the Words of God empowered the people. I quote, 
“The people are moved to praise God, to weep over their sins, to change their behavior, and to make renewed promises to God.”

THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks did not deal with the Word of God, but it definitely dealt with His people. The inspiration for this book, the Sarajevo Haggadah is the pride and glory of the Bosnian museum collection.  Its history was so unique - it was spared during the Spanish Inquisition, and the Nazi’s book burning in World War II.  It was spirited out of the library and hidden in a bank vault when the Serbs started bombing the libraries and museums of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War (1992-1995).  It was written and illustrated in Spain during the mid 14th century. Carried and ferried by people whose main motive was the survival of a culture.
“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me to do my work.”

Let’s get on with the hard parts first.  Geraldine Brooks was a journalist, and her penchant for the vast historical background was very evident here.  There were mysteries involved and some really interesting twists and turns.  But wherein a historical fiction should have a smooth buttery beginning so it can sink in more easily, the first 100 pages (or so) was actually a trial for me.  The prose was readable but lacks the drive to move the reader emotionally.

The characterization was supposedly a vital part of the story.  Unfortunately, there was no space for humor, no play of language, or color of emotions for me.   I believe that for a historical novel to survive within its pages, the reader must have a chance to attach him/herself to the characters.  There must be a psychological or emotional impact that may manipulate individuality to bring the past into life. 

What then made me read on?  There were three.  (1) What it lacked in prose and character, its rich history made up for it.  Ms. Brooks undeniably knows her history.   Curiosity kept it alive for me; there was a need for me to simply follow it.  Each clue that Hannah Heath found, takes us further and further in time.  It was like walking backward until the present time finally caught up.  Such astounding revelations. 

(2) Art was the other thing.  The book explored how people all throughout history used the creation of objects and paintings to record events, express their beliefs, and show how they respond to them.  It gave credence to the religious communities that had been recording their history with passion.  In the latter part of the book, it tackled the research and preservation of Aboriginal rock art as a record of a unique ancient culture in Australia.

(3) There were issues about survival all throughout the novel.  It tackled the survival of the people and the Haggadah in the state of armed conflict, in the presence of religious persecution, and deceit.
“...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."
In the fewest possible words, The People of the Book is about history, art, and survival that empowered and renewed the people.  Ms. Brooks's fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah is curiously inspiring indeed.

Book details:
Title:  The People of the Book
Publisher:  Viking Penguin
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Format:  Hardbound
Source:  Purchased copy
Rating:  ★★★★


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