I love books of all kinds. But especially OLD books. I don't mean beautiful, pristine, don't they look lovely sitting on the shelf, old books (though those are nice, too) but worn, used, LOVED old books. Writing in the margins? Even better. What could be nicer than to see what some long-ago person thought about this passage or that paragraph? To me, this is the best part of an old book, the tingle of previous hands and minds that have enjoyed it before me. They are HISTORY in your hand. Oh, if only they could speak, what they could tell you about their previous owners and the times they lived in....
Obviously, Geraldine Brooks gets this about old books, because she has written a wonderful novel about exactly that idea. People of the Book is the tale of one book's journey (inspired by a true story).
In the spring of 1996, book conservator Hanna Heath is sent to Sarajevo to stabilize and conserve their museum's famous Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book traditionally used in family prayers. This particular Haggadah is special. It contains brilliantly executed illuminations that are extremely rare in early Jewish books. The book has been hidden away by the Muslim museum director during the recent war and its condition needs specialist care.
The real Sarajevo Haggadah
When she inspects the Haggadah, Hanna finds several clues that will help her to uncover some of the book's volatile history: an insect's wing, mounting marks for clasps which are missing, a stain that looks like wine, salt crystals and a single white hair.
"It was as if I was up against some genie who lived within the pages of old books. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you got to release him for an instant or two, and he would reward you with a misty glimpse into the past. Other times, pouf-he'd blow it all away before you could make sense of it, and stand there, arms crossed: Thus far, and no farther."
Behind each of these clues there lies a story, a piece of the history of the book and these short tales are woven into Hanna's search and her own personal journey.
Considering the tumultuous eras that this book has survived, its existence today is something of a miracle and a testament to the myriad people who came in contact with it. People who, whatever their religion, had the respect and strength of character to preserve something precious.
In People of the Book Geraldine Brooks has given us a peek into what the Sarajevo Haggadah's history might have been like. I loved this excellent and beautifully written story. It was hard to put down and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in well-written historical fiction, contemporary fiction or mysteries.
FYI: The film rights have been acquired by Catherine Zeta Jones. You can find more information on Geraldine Brooks and all of her novels at her website.
Here are some reviews from fellow bloggers: