Monday, August 15, 2011

'People of the Book': A Book for Book People

Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. Penguin, 2008.

People of the Book is clearly written by an author who has had a longstanding love affair with books. On page after page, Brooks provides elegant and vivid descriptions of the unusual 'Sarajevo Haggadah' around which her novel is based, exploring both its modern-day condition and its previous creation and use. Her human characters, from modern day book conservator Hanna Heath to the book's owners in times long past, are also bibliophiles, and the vivid and intimate approaches to the codex throughout the volume should delight any book lover.

People of the Book integrates Hanna's story, which involves a complex love affair and an awkward relationship with her mother, with that of the book she is examining and restoring. As Hanna finds fragments and stains that will give her clues about the Haggadah's history, Brooks intersperses Hanna's discoveries (and frustrating everyday life) with imaginative stories about these older owners. Thus we meet a frightened little girl, a gambling Venetian rabbi, a stubborn doctor, and a lesbian artist, whose interactions with the book each changed it in some fundamental manner. Brooks' relic-based flashbacks are creative and imaginative, and add a fanciful twist that modern readers of older books should appreciate: long will scholars wonder about the first readers of ancient manuscripts, and Brooks' fictitious solutions to these mysteries is satisfying and pleasant.

Despite its elegance and satisfactory creativity, Brooks' novel also occasionally wanders between the banal and the titillating. Hanna's thoughts and actions are constantly affected by her frequent sexual encounters and her frustrating obsession with her family, both of which detract from the greater and more compelling story of the Haggadah. At the same time, the insistent focus on the sinful passions of the book's past owners, rather than an emphasis on their passions for the book itself, detract from the wonderful story Brooks has created around a remarkable codex, and left me wishing I could have read a heavily excerpted version free from the modern issues of obsessive Hannah and the overarching sexual tensions that seem to intrude upon nearly every character's story and impede the story of the book itself.

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