Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of March, a book I disliked so much I declined to review it. However, my spouse and I agreed that our Hannukah gifting this year would be limited (for the adults) to one moderate gift, and her gift to me was a limited edition replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The real story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is fascinating and stirring (CTRL click to see the Wikipedia entry). Geraldine Brooks wrote People of the Book and mostly fictionalized the story. The combination of getting a replica of the Haggadah and the fact that my wife's book group loved the book prompted me to put my past experience with March behind me and give Ms. Brooks another try. Another impetus to give Ms. Brooks another try was my discovery that she is married to the author Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Highways, one of the most intriguing (and hilarious and educational) travelogues cum history lessons I have ever read. So, I began.
I could not put this book down. I fell asleep on it on a Friday night, woke up Saturday morning, made coffee, and finished the book. Brook's fiction is virtually complete - there are only a few real facts on which she builds her novel, but that is really OK. There are really good invented backstories - and while there is a very real manuscript and manuscript conservation expert as well as a couple of heroic Bosnian Muslim librarians in the novel and in reality, Brooks is quick to point out that the novel's personalities are in no way based on the historical figures. With that, you are off to the races as Brooks intertwines a personal and family mystery with a fictionalized explanation of how this 500+ year-old manuscript was created, sheltered, and finally brought into the limelight following the Bosnian/Serb/Croat war that reduced most of Sarajevo to rubble.
The personal family story includes a tip-of-the-hat to old adage that all families are dysfunctional in their own special ways. In this case the Austrialian manuscript restorer, Hanna Heath, deals with her single parent domineering and hypercritical neurosurgeon of a mother (incredibly well drawn) and on top of that an affair with a Bosnian Muslim whose child was made comatose by a sniper, and professional betrayal.
Alernating chapters bring progess on the Hanna Heath personal story and explanations of how the Sarajevo Haggadah got to be where and what it was. Following a few clues - an insect wing found in the binding, a set of missing silver clasps, a wine stain, a tiny few salt crystals, a white hair and a couple of historical recreations, Hanna's personal adventures advance with our understanding of how this manuscript was treated, transported, and working backwards, created.
Brooks' main characters are interesting and believable - though some of the explanations of their behavior and motivations are a bit contrived. Brooks pulls it off however by making the situations (both "real time" with Hanna and historically with the Haggadah) intriguing and the dialogue crisp - humor applied sparingly but quite effectively. By using the backdrop of the actual Bosnian war as informative background, modern-day parallel of the religious strife that accompanied the Haggadah's semi-miraculous survival, and a reflective look at the unfortunate paucity of elapsed time exhibiting the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews (of which Sarajevo, after WWII but prior the the war in the 90s seemed to represent). Fictional history well told. Personal and family adventures interesting and well-drawn. Have fun with People of the Book and you will learn a few things along the way.