Charlotte's Web

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Pouting and Reading

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To quote the Sunday Times, I’ve been “doing a lot of pouting and staying in bed late”, not because I’m Madonna, but because I’ve had a three-day migraine. Germany’s top husband has, as the article says, been playing chef, diplomat and domestic fluffer, which has included his coming into the bedroom frequently and putting down the blinds to rest my eyes. About 30 seconds after he leaves I leap up, and roll them up again so that I can read. It probably prolonged the headache, but I can’t lie in bed during the day and not read. Also, the books were so good that I had to.

First up was Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which definitely rates as my third book of the year (first was Half of a Yellow Sun and second was The Lay of the Land). People of the Book is hard to define – it’s part thriller, part love-story, part historical novel and part something all its own. I got that shivery feeling on the first page that I was going to love it, and I did (no, it wasn’t the migraine). It tells the story of Hanna, an Australian book restorer who is called to Sarajevo in 1996 on behalf of the UN to restore an ancient Jewish manuscript – the Haggadah – which was rescued from destruction during the Bosnian war by its Muslim librarian. Hanna restores the text, but also finds objects between its pages – a grain of salt, a fragment of a butterfly wing, a wine stain – that give her clues to the book’s previous owners. Large sections of the novel are given to uncovering who these people, the people of the book, were and tracing the Haggadah’s journey from Spain to Italy and finally to Sarajevo over a 500-year period.

Geraldine Brooks was a war correspondent in Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East and People of the Book is testament to her experience in parts of the world where many cultures meet and her journalistic ability to uncover and represent facts. The novel traces the history of the Jews in Europe, and thus the history of religious intolerance and prejudice, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Venetian Geto to the cultural richness that was Sarajevo before the World War II via characters who become curators and care-takers of the book. I found this part of the novel fascinating, and the way she winds it into the modern strand reminded me a little of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

However, Brooks is also now a prize-winning novelist, and it is her ability to imagine characters that is her ultimate success. Hanna is a completely appealing narrator: she has a snappy, self-deprecating Aussie wit, an appalling relationship with her mother which provides a satisfying sub-plot and a penchant for heroes disguised as librarians. Her passion for restoration and detail, which in other hands could have been dull, illuminates the novel so that, as a reader, I felt as if I was on her journey with her, uncovering the people and the history of the book.

People of the Book is about layers and mysteries, about history and fiction, and about ordinary people who in moments of historical crisis, become heroes. Apart from being a superb read, it also strongly underlines the fact that religious intolerance and the struggle for Muslim, Jew and Christian to co-exist peacefully is an ancient one. However, since the curators of the Haggadah were, over the centuries, Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish, Brooks’ message is a positive one: that people who love the written word will try to overcome their differences in order to save books. For, as Hanna reminds us:

Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.

That happy note leads me to the second book I read this weekend. It was a toss-up between the new Le Carre and, after a shuffle through my to-be-read pile, another Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders. I decided on a feast of Geraldine, and I was rewarded. TYOW rests on Brooks’ twin pillars of historical veracity (the evocation of an English village in 1666, the Plague year) and compelling, believable characters. Having read March earlier this year, I am in awe of her ability to imagine herself into a distant world and make it real through a combination of exacting research and beautiful writing. Thanks to her, I forgot my migraine and stopped pouting, just for a while.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

16 thoughts on “Pouting and Reading

  1. Agreed! If one has to lie in bed, there is no option but to read! Hubby believes sleep cures all ills – well that and Panado (paracetamol), and I simply can’t just lie there and sleep! This has resulted in a few “Dr Hubby” and patient arguments! Will definately put “People of the Book” on my ‘must read’ list!

  2. Sorry about the migraine, but thanks for the reviews! I also really loved both these books (more than March, which I read in between). I can also highly recommend Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire, which is a collection of essays from her time as a middle east correspondent – about women in the various countries she went to, and the relationship (which is far from direct) between the oppression of women and the Islamic faith. A thoughtful book, which taught me a lot about the relevant Islamic texts, and about some of the many different interpretations which can be made of them (which should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the various schisms in Christian faiths on similar topics).

    I’ve noticed it back in Australian bookshops lately (it was published over 10 years ago) which is probably because of her more recent success as a novelist.

  3. I was thinking of Geraldine Brooks yesterday. I’ve only read one of her books, Foreign Correspendence, which I really liked. She wrote an artcle for American Vogue magazine, that was very anti-Catholic. I am not Catholic myself, or religious, but it really turned me off.

  4. Ugh, a three-day migraine. You poor thing! Not to give health advice, because who I am to do so, but have you tried acupuncture? That’s what cured my migraines years ago. I get tension headaches now, but no migraines since.

    Though maybe the real cure for migraines is beautiful writing, as you say above… Feel better.

  5. Sorry about teh migraine – but I’m glad you had some good book medicine on hand to help you wait it out in bed. I haven’t read any of her books but you’ve made me want to now – I’ll look out for them. Hope the migraine is gone never to return.

  6. I love Geraldine Brooks! Wish I could write like her!

  7. I hope you feel better Charl!

    This book reminds me of the movie The Red Violin, only with much more serious subject matter. Another one for the library list!

  8. I definitely can’t stay in bed and not read! Hope the migraine’s clearing up by now – all of those reads sound worthwhile…

  9. Ugh! I’m so sorry. I hate migraines. Sergio is always reprimanding me. “If your head hurts, why are you reading? You’re just making it worse you know?” I nod, I know, I know, but still who can just lay in bed all day without reading?

    I love character driven books. I’m glad I missed the library today, I’ll add it to my list before I go this week.

  10. Geraldine Brooks is fantastic – haven’t read anything of hers I haven’t enjoyed.

  11. Hi Sailplane, I feel very bad that you suffer migraine so. As a child, right up until 19 years of age, migraine made me go blind, vomit up my stomach and then devastated me with pain. It sounds unlikely, but on a doctor’s advice, I started fending it off with honey. A teaspoon in every cup of tea. It still works for me today. May I ask whether you are writing, or do I get smacked for that? Have been corresponding with Marie and read P&M’s wedding web. Wow, very impressed. That’s something else. I love their enthusiasm. Seeya, Pierre.

  12. Poor you with the migraine! Ugh how horrible. I’m so glad there were compensations. I bought the Geraldine Brooks’s novel (POTB) in Tescos at a bargain price so yay! I’m really looking forward to it now, thank you for the wonderful review.

  13. Good to know you loved the Brooks novel so much; I thought Year of Wonders was great and am looking forward to getting to her other books. I hope the migraine is entirely gone by now!

  14. I love those books, too.

  15. Brooks is quite extraordinary. I saw her interviewed when I went to a taping of Andrew Denton’s “Enough Rope”. She is a petite, softly spoken woman who has done these incredible things, and is also one of our most prolific writers. I loved March, so will definitely seek out her new novel. Thanks for the tip, Charlotte. I, too, suffer the migraine, so I hope you are feeling 100%.

  16. I love Geraldine too… brilliant, brilliant.

    Yukko to the migraines… after years of suffering, mine were cured by homeopathy and a twice a year visit to an INCREDIBLE osteopath in Karlsruhe. Happy to provide name if you are interested, just drop me a line.

    Have fun in the U S of A! Exciting time for a visit.

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