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August 7, 2009

Geraldine Brooks - People of the Book

Judith Maclean Miller

More by this author...

A book review by Judith Maclean Miller

Geraldine Brooks - People of the Book.

Penguin. 2008. 368p. ISBN 978-0-14-31150-7

This is a novel about books and its story is a great pleasure for people who enjoy books as artifacts, as beautifully made objects. It is also about the people of the Book: Jews, Muslims, Christians.

Hanna Heath, an Australian restorer of books, is hired to go into Sarajevo just after the Bosnian war, to work on a haggadah, a book setting out the order of the Passover Seder. This particular small volume is unusual, a beautifully crafted and illustrated medieval book. Unlike the Christian texts of the era, the Jewish ones were not illuminated. Hanna is captivated by its beauty and also by its history.

Often afraid for her own safety in the war torn city, Hanna is told about how the book was saved during the worst conflict. “And do you know who saved it? Went in under intense shelling. Can you imagine, Channa? A Muslim, risking his neck to save a Jewish book.”

Ozren Karaman, head of the museum library is the man who saved it. Anna is surprised when she meets him by his quiet strength and the air of sadness which hangs around him, his bitterness. He seems an unlikely hero. She gradually learns the story of his tragic losses during the war. 

As she works on the haggadah, Hanna discovers tiny, odd articles within it: a broken insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain . . . and the book is intricately structured around the stories of those objects, how they came to be a part of this haggadah, how they mark its journeys.

This is a novel, but it is based on a true story. We know that all of this could have happened. Certainly, the periods of time Brooks explores are historical. And the haggadah could have been a part of them in the ways she imagines.

Brooks (and Hanna) trace Muslims, Christians and Jews through European history. We are shown as readers that members of all those communities can commit heroic, generous acts. Some of them can also be selfish, villainous, cowardly. They have lived together and apart through quiet and through troubled times.

Brooks reminds the reader that the time of the Convivencia in Spain was golden. People of all three faiths lived quietly together, creating beautiful art and artifacts, demonstrating the skills and insights of the three communities working together. Much was lost when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain by a weak Christian king under the influence of fanatical prelates threatening him with eternal damnation.

Through all the upheavals, craftsmen and women made beautiful objects, using their skills of book making, calligraphy, painting—and all of those touch this little haggadah in some way. Heroic acts rescue and hide it more than once, but the quietly unheroic lives of the artists make it what it is. Beautiful books, a rabbi says, strengthen the soul.

When the restored book is exhibited in Sarajevo, Hanna sees once again that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another. She also suddenly sees that villainy has entered the life of the haggadah again. Mystery which has been hovering in the background of the novel comes to the surface. The intricate plotting takes another intriguing twist.

Illuminations from the Sarajevo Haggadah can be seen at

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