Wednesday, April 15, 2009

People Stuck in the Book

15. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I wanted to like this book. And I did, to a certain extent. Geraldine Brooks imagines the people that owned and protected the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah. A good book to read during Passover. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real artifact that originated in Spain and found its way to Sarajevo in Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. It is known for its daring illustrations, made in a time when Jews were as wary of likenesses as many Muslims are still today.

The book follows the story of Hanna Heath, the book conservator assigned to the Sarajevo Haggadah (Hanna, like all of Brooks' characters, is fictional), interspersed with the tales of the people who, as I mentioned, owned or protected the Haggadah. I liked Hanna as a narrator, she had definite character. I also feel like I learned a lot about the art and field of book conservation, which interests me. The story centered a lot on her relationship with her mother, which is fine, but the mother is absolutely unbelievable. She's a completely one-dimensional job-obsessed character. Blah. That's just no fun. Obviously you have to hate her.

The problem with most of Brooks' characters is they just don't quite seem like they could exist outside of the book. They're two and a half dimensional. The Sarajevo Haggadah is born on the edge of the Spanish Inquisition, it braves the Inquisition in Venice as well, the rise of anti-Semitism in late nineteenth-century Austria, the Nazi Occupation of Sarajevo, and finally the Bosnian Civil War. The characters who fashion and shelter the Haggadah experience more than their share of cruelty and upheaval. Maybe their setting is the problem.

The reader sees these characters in pain, in sorrow, in desperation. We never see them happy or celebratory. Sometimes there is hope or strength, but I'm not sure if they're capable of being happy. And that's what's missing from this book.

The People of the Book may have a long history of persecution, but there is also a history of triumph and celebration. I understand that too often, authors tie everything up with happy endings and stray from the dark, but if Brooks wants realism, she ought to admit there's a light side too.

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