Day 358: People of the Book

Cover for People of the BookBest Book of the Week!

I read People of the Book several years ago and remembered that it was good, but when re-reading it for my book club, I enjoyed it even more. The novel is based on the history of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Part of the novel is envisioned based on what is known of the book’s history, while the rest is invented.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war, Hanna Heath, an expert in the restoration of old books, is asked to restore the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous book believed twice to have been destroyed by war that was both times rescued by Moslem museum curators. The book is especially important because of its beautiful illustrations, as before it was discovered, scholars believed that old Hebrew books did not contain such illuminations.

While Hanna is working on the book, she makes observations and collects artifacts that will help trace its history. She notes that the book once had clasps that are now missing, collects an insect wing, and scrapes residue from staining.

Hanna also becomes involved with the man who rescued the book, Ozren Karaman, whose wife was killed during the war and whose baby son is in the hospital with a brain injury. As Hanna was raised by an aloof and competitive mother, though, she is poor at forming attachments.

When Hanna finishes restoring the book, she follows up with research into the clasp and the artifacts she collected. As she finds out about each item, the novel goes farther back in time, explaining what happened to the book and telling the stories of the people involved with it, until the creation of the book in 15th century Spain.

A poor Jewish girl named Lola works for the partisans in the forest outside Sarajevo during World War II after the Jews are expelled from the city by the Nazis and her family is shipped off to camps. Later she is helped to safety by the Moslem curator of the museum, who also has a book to hide. A 19th century Viennese bookbinder who is dying from syphilis steals the beautiful silver clasps from the book to exchange with his doctor for treatment. In 1609 Venice, a priest working for the Inquisition saves the book from burning but confiscates it from its owner. A young girl saves the book as the Jews are expelled from Spain in 1492.

These are just the bones of some of the absorbing stories that draw you along as Brooks imagines the history of the book. Each tale is vividly imagined and skillfully told, and they are all held together by Hanna’s experiences. People of the Book is a gracefully written and imaginative novel that emphasizes the contributions of multiple cultures and religions to the book’s creation and safety.