On The Cover: Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, has been offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding – an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair – she begins to unlock the book’s mysteries, ushering in its exquisite and atmospheric past, from its salvation back to its creation through centuries of exile and war.
Why I Chose It: I found this book at a used book sale and was drawn in by the idea of a story centered around a book.
Hanna’s love for books was very evident and powerful, and as such I was drawn to her character right away. She receives the Haggadah and notices the tiniest details about the book. I loved this for two reasons. First, I am in love with the detailed descriptions of this book, the examination of every aspect, and the focus on how these pieces work together to create this amazing volume. And second, I love that you’re seeing all of these details through Hanna’s eyes, and her awe, curiosity, and love for this text just seeps from the page. I just want to read the opening chapters of this book again and again to experience Hanna’s interaction with this ancient text.
Brooks creates multiple characters and histories when telling the history of the Haggadah, and I love the rich details of culture and religion that are evident through all of them. Though they are all linked by the Haggadah, each story was of different cultures and featured very different characters to explore. I enjoyed the different feel that each one had, and how I could look forward to the Haggadah surfacing in each different story.
While I enjoyed all of these short stories, I could not help but feel the novel was extremely fragmented. When starting a new section with a new set of characters, I wanted to feel driven to understand who they are and what involvement they had with the Haggadah. I never felt that push. The story remained very halting and stilted, and I sadly had a lot of trouble remaining keyed in to the story. A large part of this issue was that Hanna’s personal life became a focus of the novel and so I could not remain focused on the fate of the Haggadah. Hanna’s story contained many disconnected elements that I truly wasn’t invested in, such as her love life or how she doesn’t like her mother, and I feel the story of the Haggadah would have been rich enough without those dramatic flares. Had her storyline remained focused on the ancient text I believe the overall feel of the story would have been improved.
People of the Book was a hard one for me to evaluate. There are so many elements that I loved, but so many that I really didn’t. I wanted to like this book, and yet I constantly found things that prohibited that. Despite that, there are some really beautiful parts about culture and religion, and the very evident love for books. I am extremely curious about Brooks’ other works and exploring what else she can do. If you’re interested in conservation, religious texts, or historical fictions this might be well worth checking out.
Rating: 3 / 5
Culture/Religion: 5 / 5
Setting/Atmosphere: 4 / 5
Overarching Plot: 1 / 5
Transitions/Movement: 2 / 5
“As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.” p 13
“Parchment, especially, I love. So durable it can last for centuries, so fragile it can be destroyed in a careless instant. One of the reasons, I’m sure, that I got this job was because I have written so many journal articles on parchment. I could tell, just from the size and scatter of the pore holes, that the parchments in front of me had been made from the skin of a now-extinct breed of thick-haired Spanish mountain sheep. You can date manuscripts from the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to within a hundred years or so if you know when that particular breed was all the go with the local parchment makers.” p 18
“Six years in solitary. I don’t know how anyone copes with that. […] I mean, it wasn’t like he was a soldier or even a political activist … people think that, you think, well, they know what the stakes are. But he was just a librarian…” p 100