Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People of the Book

People of the Book is Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, recently released in paperback. Brooks won the Pulitzer a few years ago for March (pov: the dad of the Little Women). I didn't read it but I gave it to my sister and she was totally ga-ga over it.

People of the Book's premise was very appealing to me - rare book expert examines ancient Jewish text - neatly combining my love of things Paper and things Jewish History.

Brookses' story is loosely based on the real-life story of the 14th c. Sarajevo Haggadah - an illustrated Jewish prayer book (the fact that it's illustrated in "Christian" style is quite unique) that was only somewhat recently in human history re-discovered. In the book, the paper conservator examines the book, finding a few anomalies (a hair, several fluid residues, a bit of insect wing) which she unravels as far as she can. Interspersed with these histories are the stories of the people who handled/protected/guarded the book. If I'm remembering correctly, each story is first-person pov narrative.

Brooks tells the story in a backward narrative, from finding the person to the previous owner and so on until (no surprise) its creator. That particular structuring didn't work for me, I thought it was ambitious and I appreciate that. What Brooks seems to excel at, beside wonderful storytelling and a few great ideas, is capturing the voice of a variety of characters, not afraid to find the simplicity in some characters' language, and the poetry of intellectual thought in another. Explores Jewish mystisicm and kabala (a similar theme is found in another great book about language: Bee Season come to play. She writes:
It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp; suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. East character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.
A reoccurring theme throughout the book is how how the book, the Haggadah, was created under the influence of multiple cultures and religions, and how both the past and future are guided and protected by the cooperation of seemingly incompatible relationships. Brooks illustrates the power of books to connect us and provide common ground in an engaging and challenging way.

No comments: