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.