Rachel's Random Recommendation #12: Brooks
People of the Book (2008) by Geraldine Brooks

I don't quite remember why I picked up this book a few years ago. Maybe someone had mentioned that it dealt with rare manuscripts and preservation (which I'm pretty interested in). But whatever the reason, I count this novel as one of my favorites of all time. That's right. ALL TIME.

This was the first of Brooks's novels that I had read (I went on to read The Year of Wonders), and I was very pleased to find her writing to be fluid, natural, and even hypnotic at times. She has that ability to draw you into whatever story she's telling. I mean, she could be telling you about a snail skirting a mud puddle and it would be riveting.

The story behind People of the Book, though, is fascinating in its own right. Brooks was inspired by the true story of a rare illuminated Hebrew manuscript- a Haggadah (the text recited at the seder during Passover) created in medieval Spain. From there, it traveled the world, picking up bits and pieces of everyday lives and fossilizing them within its pages. Among the artifacts found by Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath (who is invited to analyze and preserve it) are an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, and a white hair.

Page from the Sarajevo HaggadahWhat makes the manuscript so extraordinary (besides the fact that it is one of the earliest Jewish volumes to be illuminated with figurative paintings) is that it has survived some of the most violent religious and nationalist clashes over several centuries. It passed through Inquisition-era Venice, late-19th century Vienna, and cities ravaged by WWII. When Heath gets her hands on it, it has just been rescued from the bombs of the Bosnian War.

Brooks jumps back and forth between timelines and among countries, each chapter inviting us to work alongside Heath in her quest to understand what this codex has become and the lives it has touched. And it is only through the careful forensic work of this rare-book expert that the answer to a major question raised by one image is finally answered.

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