I can imagine Geraldine Brooks' agent pitching the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's new novel, People of the Book (Viking, 384 pages, $15), as The Da Vinci Code written by someone who can actually write. The two stories certainly have a lot of the same elements: a holy book with an untold story, a rare-book expert with plucky, unconventional methods who causes everyone a lot of trouble, and a whole lot of history.
However, Brooks' story comes alive through its characters and intensely researched settings rather than a roller-coaster plot and multiple murders, which can read like a screenplay without camera-angle instructions.
No, People of the Book is actually for people who like books.
In this fictional account, Brooks—who is best known for Pulitzer-winner March and the bubonic-plague bonanza Year of Wonders, follows the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Jewish holy book, from 15th-century Seville to 20th-century war-torn Sarajevo as it passes through the hands of the Christians, Jews and Muslims who lived and died to see it protected. The book was seen as heretical for its humanistic portrayal of biblical events.
Connecting these historical-fiction vignettes is the story of Hanna Heath, an emotionally unavailable, career-obsessed book conservator hired to examine the Haggadah, and her love affair with Muslim librarian Ozren, who saves the book during the bombing of Sarajevo. As Hanna discovers more about the Haggadah, she discovers the truth about her own family.
And that's what makes this story work. People of the Book gains its magic not by proclaiming sweeping revelations about Jewish religion, but by revealing small stories of compassion that encompass the history of the Haggadah.
In particular, Hanna is a beautifully constructed character who discovers herself as she joins the people of the book. Each chapter of People of the Book is titled after items Hanna discovers trapped among and on pages of the Haggadah manuscript: an insect-wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals and white hair. As Hanna builds her report, theHaggadah's story reveals itself. And as Brooks' book builds its story, Brooks beautifully captures the tragic tale of European Jews. My lone criticism is that the espionage storyline that overtakes much of the last quarter of the book doesn't do the rest of that story justice.
To open the novel, Brooks quotes Heinrich Heine: "There, where one burns books, one in the end burns people."
Brooks' story shows that something beautiful can survive the fire.
READ: Geraldine Brooks reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Jan. 19. Free.