Wednesday, August 6, 2014

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book
"Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand."

This sentence encapsulates the feeling of Geraldine Brooks's novel, People of the Book. The novel traces the life of a valuable Jewish haggadah backward in time, slowly revealing its secrets and the history that shaped it.

You may remember earlier this year when I read and reviewed another Brooks novel, Year of Wonders. That one, I read for grad school. This one, however, has been On Reserve since I read Will Schwalbe's memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club. He mentioned the book and spoke well enough of it then to grab my attention. 

The novel, which focuses around Australian rare book expert Hanna Heath, begins when the Sarajevo Haggadah needs restored in order to be returned to the Sarajevo museum after the destructive war of the 1990s. Heath is called in to do the job. 

In the course of her work, she finds a few interesting qualities about the ancient text. A small white hair, indentations which indicate missing clasps, a deep red stain, a salt water stain, and a mysterious picture which shows an African woman sitting with a wealthy Jewish family around the ceremonial table. Each represents a mystery in the book's past and Heath embarks on a journey to uncover the forgotten history. Along the way she meets a variety of book experts and learns about her own history, as well. 

Into this main plot, Brooks interjects stories explaining the book's mysterious traits. I will not spoil things for you, but will say that Brooks takes readers to the times of WWII, the Spanish Inquisition, the eviction of the Moors from Spain, and other key points in European history. The theme through each era is the conflict between religious groups and the kinship that forms between individuals of vastly different backgrounds. That theme weaves beautifully through the story and puts into perspective the dark history of religiously motivated mass crimes. 

At one point, Brooks writes, "Christians raise the armies, Muslims raise the buildings, Jews raise the money." This statement is so simple, yet so poignant. Stereotypical, yes, but also deeply accurate as you look at history. We Christians do like to get riled up about things and fight for 'holy' causes. This is demonstrated in everything from the Emperor Constantine's battle cry, to the Crusades, to, arguably, recent American wars in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the idea of Muslims building reminds me of the quote I posted from The Reluctant Fundamentalist in which Hamid points out that Muslims were building great cities long before the West was even civilized. And, of course, we all know the age-old stereotype about Jewish people being wealthy. People of the Book actually brought to my attention that many of Europe's wars were actually funded by Jewish investors when rulers could not pay for them out of pocket. Keeping the money flowing often kept Jewish communities safe. Anti-Semetic rulers could not afford to commit religious genocide on the people bankrolling their battles. 

The discussion of preparing museums for war and hiding valuable artifacts, which pervades the novel, reminded me of The Monuments Men. What a fascinating idea...that war spurs these people into action to save history. Brooks describes Nazi Germany as a 'kleptocracy,' an apt term for anyone remotely familiar with their art exploits across Europe. I find the concept of protecting art from human violence both terribly romantic and terribly tragic. It's an idea that completely captivates me - how art and culture are affected by war. In fact, the only concrete idea I have had thus far for my thesis stems around the issue. Stay tuned for more on that. 

In some ways, the book felt a bit like a scavenger hunt or a puzzle. All the pieces came together slowly and masterfully. It reminded me at times of a Dan Brown novel, although that seems a weak comparison since Brooks's writing is so expert. She needs no sensationalism to propel her story forward. Her beautiful characters and intricate plot do the work for her. 

I highly recommend this book. It offers not only an engaging read, but causes the reader to think on some heavy issues. You can enjoy the book without the heavy thinking, but I am of the opinion that heavy thinking only improves the experience. 

Pages: 449
Date Completed: July 7, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment