Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Reviews #6

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

This was suggested as our bookgroup read for this month and became the default book at the end of the evening after we'd all drunk too much red wine to be able to come up with any other suggestions, not an auspicious start.
Then before I'd even started it a friend commented that he'd read the back of it and didn't like the sound of it.
But I'd bought the digital edition for my eReader and there is no back blurb to read and be off put by.

I loved this book, absolutely loved it, despite it doing something that I find irritating in novels - stopping with one person's tale and starting with a new one, so that you have to learn new characters, again and again. However, it was an essential tool in this book as there were many people involved with the book of the title and therefore many stories to be told.

The book in question is the Sarajevo haggadah, which does actually exist, funnily enough in Sarajevo and if you want to know more about it click here.
Geraldine Brooks takes the haggadah almost as the central character and then explores how it came to be via the other main character 'Hanna' who is a extremely well thought of (in her circles) book restorer/historian. She is tasked with restoring the haggadah which has undergone many decades if not centuries of abuse so that it may be displayed to the public. Hanna views the book as a living organism and is keen to suggest theories for the way in which the book has evolved - there are various stains on its pages, it has at some point been rebound and there were once clasps on the book which are no longer in situ.

The possible explanations for each of the scars that the haggadah wears are almost separate stories each with its own characters, all revolving around the haggadah.
We are taken back through the Bosnian conflict when the book had to be hidden in a safe place in case the museum where it was stored was bombed, then onto World War II where again the book had to be hidden to protect it this time from the Nazi desire to destroy anything to do with Judaism.
We go to Vienna around the time of Freud where syphilis seems to be rampant (or at least it is in this chapter) where the book is rebound, from Venice we go back to the Venice ghetto of 1609 where the book narrowly escapes burning when the Catholic Church clamps down on what should and shouldn't be allowed to be in print.
Further back still we go Andalucia around 1492 when Isabella and Ferdinand kick out the Jews and the Muslims from their country and so the book goes too, this was actually its starting place, its inception point but the haggadah is not just script but illuminations too and the illuminations had already travelled when they were forced to flee from Spain. The painter of the beautiful illuminations in this story started life the beloved daughter of a doctor in Africa before being enslaved and sold to a harem from where she fled and fled again, somehow ending up in Andalucia just before the Alhambra Decree.

I came to enjoy the smaller stories that make up the whole, but found it frustrating to never entirely know what happened to the people around the central character of the haggadah, so it was a relief to find one of the last few chapters devoted to Lola from the World War II segment at the beginning, but this time in the present day.

If a book can teach me as well as keep me entertained then for someone as historically and geographically depraved as I am it's a huge bonus, I had never before realised that Jews have been so systematically persecuted, this book constantly shocked me and in writing this review I've learnt still more - whether I manage to retain any of it remains to be seen.

This is a brilliant novel, moving and educating and yet all the time enjoyable - read it, you won't be disappointed. The problem I have now is to decide which of her books to read next - March: A Love Story in Time of War or Year of Wonders or Foreign Correspondence...

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