I am a little skeptical about reading historical fiction at times, more so when set in regions whose history I am unaware of. I like to be prepared when I am reading a book. It is only fair to the writer. More over, I don’t think I would be able to read a book without knowing the place inside out. The reason I mention this is my last read was all about place in the book, or rather places, their history and culture. I first read about “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks while reading, “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe and for some reason wanted to read it since a while.
Historical fiction has always been at a top-slot genre for me. I love it. I love to relive and imagine the places and events that have taken place in the past and are of great historical significance. How things were then? What were the issues? Are things any different today? Questions such as these have always attracted me towards historical fiction. The minute I got to know that the “People of the Book” was about a book saved from being destroyed at every stage of its journey, I knew I had to read it. I read and I cannot stop talking about it to everyone I meet.
“People of the Book” is about the Sarajevo Haggadah and its beauty and importance in the Jewish community. A Haggadah is a book that tells the story of Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is based on a true story. Of how the Haggadah which is one of its kind – with beautiful illustrations and contexts – was saved by a librarian during WWII and then traversed the entire planet so to speak before being showcased in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Its origin is traced to Barcelona and it is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold.
“People of the Book” is a fictional account of its journey as seen through Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator, who is responsible for restoring the Haggadah. The story alternates between her present and the times in which the Haggadah was set and tried to be destroyed by various people. The story travels from Sarajevo to Europe and back home and to me that worked like a charm.
What is even more magnificent about the book is the way Geraldine Brooks explores the stories of people who came in touch with the book. Hanna finds clues when she first chances upon the Haggadah in the form of – preserved butterfly remnants, wine stains, a strand of white hair and salt crystals on it, which tells the story of the book. I love this kind of structure in books. Stories within stories help me relate and uncover the book for myself. Hanna takes it upon herself to know more about the book and flies halfway across the world in her quest. This I loved about the book. Hanna’s relationships are also covered along the way which made a lot of sense to me. The book is almost a rollercoaster ride – from chapter to chapter with a brilliant end.
While reading the book, I was overwhelmed by the idea that someone would want to destroy books basis religions and the idea of not being tolerant enough or accepting enough to include everyone. I love the writing. Geraldine Brooks is a master of historical fiction. She brings to life the story like probably no one else can. The writing makes you gasp for breath. It is sharp and revelatory. It is almost like images are being played out in front of you and you as a reader just has to lay back and watch them transform into a well-told story. The book is also intellectual and yet reads like a thriller, which very few books manage to do. It almost reminded of “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco as I was reading it.
I could feel myself getting way too emotional while reading the book. The idea of a book being destroyed is unthinkable for me. The entire Jews conflict in the book only added more dimension to the story. I mean, it happened for real, so there is no way that goes away from it, but only enriches the book from every single perspective.
The dimensions and layers of this novel are innumerable. As a reader I was only more than satisfied as I turned every single page. It speaks of the vivid splendors of bookmaking (there is almost an entire chapter on it which is beautiful), the artistry is beautifully described and more than anything else the freedom of thought that leads to books being written, which no one can destroy, is subliminally expressed.
“People of the Book” looks at intermingling of cultures, it speaks of love for the written word, it makes you look at saving every single book, it makes you see things as a reader and as an observer and after all of this, it will make you understand that humanity comes before any kind of religion or faith. Thank you Will for suggesting this book in your book. A must read guys. Go get it.