I was urged to read this recently by a friend who was raving about it, and I was only too happy to as I loved Geraldine Brooks' two earlier novels, Year of Wonders and March. It sounded intriguing and I was looking forward to it very much. Unfortunately, though it's by no means a bad novel, it didn't really make it for me. Why not?
People of the Book is basically the story of Hanna, from Australia, who is a restorer of rare books. As the novel begins -- in 1996 -- she is called to Sarajevo to work on a rare medieval work, an ancient Jewish text known as a haggadah. A tiny book, it is illustrated with the most staggeringly beautiful paintings, which seem to owe more to Christian iconography than to its Jewish origins. As she painstakingly examines this extraordinary and wonderful artefact, she discovers within it tiny clues to its past history: a fragment of butterfly wing, a crystal of sea salt, a tiny white hair. And, with each discovery, the novel flashes back to the past, uncovering to the reader the source of each of these and thus gradually building up a picture of the book's history until at last the identity of the unknown illustrator is revealed.
This is obviously a clever device, but I was slightly dissatisfied by the fact that Hanna herself would never know these stories -- of course there's no way she could, so I realise I was asking too much -- though she does eventually make a discovery (rather pat, I thought) about the identity of the original illustrator. More than this, I was just not that enthralled by the historical episodes. Yes, they were well researched, but to be honest I found them a bit boring. Also I have, for some reason, a prejudice against novels that flash back and forth between the past and the present -- Kate Mosse's Labyrinth is one example, and I never managed to finish that. I don't mind a well written novel set wholly in the past, as Brooks' two earlier novels are, so why I don't like this bobbing about is not clear to me. It's a shame, really, as there was much to appreciate about this novel. I did very much like Hanna's own story -- her problems with her appalling mother, her disovery of the identity of her father and its effect on her own sense of identity, her relationships with the people she worked with and her experiences in war-torn Bosnia. And also, though I didn't find this out till I read the afterword, it is fascinating to realise that the haggadah described in the novel does actually exist, and that much of the story told by Brooks is based on known fact. I wish I'd known this at the beginning as maybe my reading experience would have changed.
So all in all I'm sorry not to have loved this novel more. It's been a huge success, so my quibbles won't mean a lot anyway, and perhaps it was just a case of the wrong time. Or perhaps it's been over-hyped. What an indecisive review this is!