Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This is partially a review, partially me telling you how amazing the story of this book, and the book the book is about, is.

This is an amazing book that I read over the holidays. Once I got started I took it everywhere so that whenever I had a moment to spare I could pick it up and continue reading. The story centers around the Haggadah of Sarajevo, which disappeared during the Yugoslavian Civil War. Later on it turned out it was saved by a Muslim librarian from the museum, while it was shot and burning. This was the second time the Haggadah was saved by a Muslim. The first time was during the Second World War, when a German officer came to the Sarajevo Museum and demanded that the Haggadah, being a Jewish book, was given to him. Another Muslim Librarian risked his life by smuggling it out of the museum and brought it to a mosque in the mountains, where it was hidden between Qur'an's.
People of the Book

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
'The Bridal Gift' centres around this Haggadah and its discovery. It is "discovered" in a bank's vault, where it was hidden by the Muslim Librarian, after the Civil War. Dr. Heath is asked to restore it, since she is one of the leading authorities in book restauration and has a lot of experience with Ancient Eastern languages. She restores the book and then flies around half the world to have pieces of material she took from the book examined in order to find out something about its history. The genius thing is that Geraldine Brooks has written a chapter about what happened after Dr. Heath has a piece of material examined. For example, she finds the wing of an insect between the pages of the Haggadah. She has it examined and it turns out it's a butterfly wing. The next chapter is a backflash to what happened in order for that wing to find its place in the book.

Even though most of the "history-chapters" are fictional, some of them are based on facts and actual events. She writes about both Muslim librarians, about a Partizan-girl who fought during the Second World War. All three of these stories are true, even though the names have been changed. The author has shown a huge amount of respect for these people and a huge enthousiasm for her own story in doing so much research. Also, she is terribly lucky have been allowed to see how the Haggadah was actually restored after the Yugoslavian Civil War.

Next to being a book about an extraordinary book, it is also about religion, understanding and respecting each other, a love for art. Neither of the last two applies to the Christians in this book. In one "historic chapter" we see a priest, one of the many, who was part of the Vatican Inquisition. They proofread Jewish books, crossed out parts they did not like or burned them if they deemed them heretic. Things they did not like was the combination of the words 'Jew' and 'religious', 'pious' or 'good'. It is almost a miracle that the Haggadah was approved of, because in one of its beautiful drawings the earth is round and seen circling the sun. In the 1500's the Vatican still believed that the entire universe was orbiting out earth and burned everyone on the stake as a heretic who said otherwise.

My favourite "history-chapter" is the last one, which gives an explanation (invented by Geraldine Brooks ) for one of the great mysteries of the Haggadah. In one of its paintings we see a Jewish family sharing a meal. One of the people present however is an African woman, dressed in Jewish garb. This has baffled proffesors for ages, since it was not custom around the time the paintings were made. I do not want to spoil this beautiful chapter for any future readers, but it is one of the best, if not the best, chapters in the book.

Next to the story about the Haggadah there is also the story about Dr. Heath, her relationship with her mother and her finding out who her father is and why he died. Although this is very interesting and definitely adds to the character of Dr. Heath, it does not compare to her chapters on the Haggadah. To me it is clear that during those chapters Geraldine Brooks was able to let her fatasy flow free, while during those concerning Dr. Heath, she was constricted to the normal world, normal, almost cliche, family problems. Next to the rich story of the Haggadah they almost fall flat.

I give this book...


Geraldine Brooks' writing style is not hard to read, but it took me some time to get completely into the book. But once you are in there it is almost impossible to get out. I simply loved this book and it is perfect for people who love books and can be enchanted by their history and by beatiful story writing.


  1. I must read this book. I like to read about history and religion, especially about Yugoslavia, since I was born and still live on its former territory. And your enthusiastic review is so wonderful it makes me wish I could start reading now:)

  2. I loved this one too, and I enjoyed the same part you did - the explanation of why the African woman was there. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

    My review, if you want to read more gushing about it :P