Sunday, March 2, 2008

Book Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I first found out about this book when I was listening to NPR (yes, I'm a radio geek, through and through) and GB was being interviewed by Diane Rehm. I loved March, which she wrote about two years ago, because it extrapolated on my favorite story of all time, Little Women, to tell the father's side of the story, including how he and Marmee met and what his time at war was really like. It was very well imagined and written, so when I heard her discussion of this newest work, I requested it from the library immediately.

GB was a journalist for many years, and it definitely worked to her advantage in People of the Book, which is the story of a literary artifacts restorer on the trail of historical data relating to a recently rediscovered, several-hundred year-old haggadah that has been rescued by a librarian during the bombing of Sarajevo. Hanna follows the clues discovered in the pages - a drop of wine, a strand of hair, missing clasps - to understand the history of the book, and on a larger scope, that of its people. Following each chapter of discovery by the protagonist is a chapter detailing the fleshed-out tale of how the item came to be in the book. These 'background' chapters are included in reverse historical order, following the centuries, and are truly amazing short stories within the larger scope of the book that even alone would be a great read, and left me wanting to know more about the fates of the characters within, particularly that of the book's original creator's daughter (I'll say no more on that, because it would be giving something away).

Woven into the story of the book and its people is the tale of Hanna herself, her relationship with the book's most recent savior, her dealings with her complex tyrant of a mother, and her discovery about her own past. The ending of the book, which while not as smooth and effortless as the rest of the book was still adequate, is a six-year jump into the future that shows exactly how far some people will go to secure their own desires.

I will not be surprised if this novel earns GB another nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. It's at least as good as March, and, for non-fans of Alcott's work, probably more so. In addition to the work being just plain interesting and entertaining, I actually learned a good deal about Jewish history; the story is based on actual events, and the haggadah is in fact a real find that GB fleshed out in gorgeous detail.