Sunday, June 12, 2011

People of the Book

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

This isn't a great book. It's good, but not great. It's uneven, sometimes uninspired and its characters are often un-engaging. Some bits have all the drama of a visit to the Pottery Barn on a Sunday afternoon. I'll get to that in a moment, but first I want to defend this novel against a critical travesty. People of the Book, despite what critics would lead you to believe, is not The Da Vinci Code. So I find it unfair to see this novel being compared incessantly to a lesser novel everywhere I look. Even a friend of mine who saw the book sitting on the table when we met earlier in the week noted that it was an academic's Da Vinci Code, a comment that made my head hurt all the more. First, because a friend who espouses critical thinking was echoing back a comparison that has been made ad nauseam throughout the literary world and second, because if this is what passes for academic literature, we are in for a bumpy ride.

As far as I'm concerned, the fact that both People of the Book and The Da Vinci Code are slightly less-than-average historical fiction is the beginning and end of the comparison. If that were enough to merit comparison why not Gore Vidal's Lincoln or the collected works of Bernard Cornwell or Ken Follett? Why? I'll tell you why... because they are all different! That's why!

Whereas the Da Vinci Code is a crap pseudo-history of the Catholic Church, its marginal weirdoes, Gnostics, creepy Freemasons and virtually every other dusty European secret society mentioned in Foucault's Pendulum trying to pass bad fiction off as solid history (or at the very least conspiracy theory on a millennial scale), People of the Book is a pretty honest attempt at a fictionalized history that remains within a manageable time frame and nothing more. While it often fails, it doesn't do so on the scale of the Da Vinci Code.

People of the Book examines the possible history of an illuminated 14th century Jewish manuscript called the Sarajevo Haggadah, a very real and very famous codex. Scholars agree that the book was copied and bound in Spain somewhere around 1350 and has spent the past three quarters of a millennium avoiding destruction at the hand of the Inquisition, Nazis, the Ustache, Tito, the Bosnian War and various other European catastrophes that have made Europe so popular. It is a literary survivor if there ever was, and the people of Sarajevo (rightfully) have a great sense of pride in this particular manuscript. Here. Take a look. It really does have striking illustrations:

Brooks' novel examines the possible history of the book as it travels from Spain to Bosnia (via Italy) over the centuries. The over-arching story unfolds as an infuriating Australian book conservator is called in to do some work on the recently rescued (from the Bosnian War) manuscript. She happens to find several interesting things hidden within the pages (an insect wing, a wine stain, crystalized salt and a white hair). Each of these things is a catalyst for an ever more intriguing history of the book that continues to reach backward in time to its earliest days.

Brooks' fictionalized history of the book is interesting and a wonderful insight into the life of Jews and Muslims in Christian Europe during the late Medieval period, through the Renaissance and into the Modern Era. The contemporary story ties the histories together (that of the grating Australian book conservator and her even more grating mother). It is so painful to read, I found it hard to get to the next bit about the actual book. That's how much I didn't care about Brook' protagonist.

I like the idea of using a modern story to stitch the history together. It has been done well in other books and I suspect will continue to be done well in books in the future. It is, however, very important to make the over-arching story interesting enough to carry the novel. Since the reader will not revisit the characters involved in the history of the book, it's important to make us care about the contemporary characters.

This is where People of the Book ultimately fails. Hannah Heath is as interesting as warm milk and her globe trotting dramas involving her family history, a slightly swarthy Bosnian lover with a dying child, an auto accident and her relationship with her beast of a mother completely miss the mark. It all plays out like a bad weekday soap opera, which only serves to trivialize the rich history Brooks is trying to illuminate. Her modern day characters do nothing to honor Haggadah and its ability to survive the centuries. Perhaps if Brooks had concentrated on one of these elements rather than trying to accomplish too much, too fast, this could have been a great book. It's a shame, too. The history of the codex is wonderfully rendered and left me doing a bunch of research on the manuscript. If only her modern characters could carry that feeling.

I can see where the comparisons to Dan Brown's book come from, but they don't really stand up. People of the Book is a slow-paced account of a possible history of a single book. there are no conspiracies. No Freemasons. The papacy doesn't get involved. People of the Book actually has a few compelling characters and, unlike The Da Vinci Code, Brooks has the capacity to bring history to life, something Dan Brown only wishes he could do. While I won't go out on the limb and recommend People of the Book, I won't condemn it either. It has its moments and sometimes a few moments is all a book needs.


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