Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Penguin Books (2008), 386 pages.

Geraldine Brooks is an exceptional writer of nonfiction (Nine Parts of Desire was shortlisted for a Gustine in 2008) and fiction set in the past (Year of Wonders, set during England’s 1666 plague, is one of the best plague novels ever written), but apparently she cannot write fiction set in the present. This fact is made very clear in People of the Book, a novel in which the chapters alternate between past and present.

The historical chapters tell the story of a 500-year-old book called the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book with extraordinary illuminated illustrations. This book is real, and is currently on display in Sarajevo. Little is known about it except for a few dates and places where it appears in the historical record: it was created in Spain sometime in the mid-1400s, changed hands in 1492, was saved from being burned in the Spanish Inquisition in 1609, showed up in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late 1800s and was sent to Vienna for expert assessment in 1894, and was mysteriously saved from the Germans in 1941. Brooks uses this spare information as starting points for five chapters in which she brilliantly brings to life casts of characters for five specific times and places: Seville in 1480, Tarragona in 1492, Venice in 1609, Vienna in 1894, and Sarajevo in 1940. Each setting is described vividly, and each of the people who owned the book (or who somehow had a hand in the book’s fate) is fully realized, their stories absorbing and gripping.

And then there are the other, modern, chapters, all centered on a dreadful character called Hanna, a rare-book expert who has been hired to research the Haggadah. These chapters read like chick-lit. Hanna is a young, clever, independent, single woman (with such an exciting job! At such a young age!) who would like to fall in love but won’t admit it to herself, who doesn’t get along with her mother, and who narrates these chapters with a breezy, self-centered, “I’m so cool” attitude. The affair she will have with the museum curator in Sarajevo is so obvious it’s truly painful. But then they have a terrible fight…oh no! Will she get the guy in the end, or not? I didn’t care. This is not literary fiction.

People of the Book is definitely worth reading for the five historical chapters. Fortunately, they are clearly marked (with the places and dates outlined above), so ignoring the modern chapters is quite easy.

(From “Sarajevo, 1940”)
Lola loved listening to Mordechai when he talked about all the practical things a pioneer had to know, like how to treat a scorpion bite or stanch a bad cut; how to site a sanitary latrine or improvise a shelter. Lola knew she would never leave home to pioneer in Palestine, but she liked to think about the kind of adventurous life that might demand such skills. And she liked to think about Mordechai. The way he spoke reminded her of the old Ladino songs her grandfather had sung to her when she was a little girl. He had a seed stand at the open-air market, and Lola’s mother would sometimes leave her there with him while she worked. Grandfather was full of tales of knights and hidalgos, and poems from a magic place called Sepharad, where he said their ancestors had lived long ago.

(From “Tarragona, 1492”)
The youth had claimed a small patch of ground at the edge of the market, hemmed in by the city wall. It was a damp, windy spot at this time of year; a poor place to attract customers, which was why the local merchants left it for the itinerant peddlers or the ragtag of war-fleeing Andalusians who drifted through the city. The wars in the south had set so many adrift. By the time they reached this far, what little they’d had of value was already sold. Most of the refugees who found places on the market’s edges were attempting to sell worthless things: threadbare cales and surcoats or a few worn-out household goods. But the youth had a piece of leather unrolled in front of him, and on it, bright and arresting, was a collection of small painted parchments. Ben Shoushan stopped and fought his way through the press to get a better look. He squatted, pressing his fingers into the chill mud for balance. It was as he thought; and the pictures were dazzling. Ben Shoushan had seen illuminations in the Christians’ prayer books, but never anything like this.

(From “Hanna, 1996”)
I had a wicked hangover, which is just what you don’t want on a seven-hour plane trip. At least I was in the pointy end again, courtesy of the bezillionare. I took the piece of seared salmon the flight attendant offered me, thinking of all the poor sods in the back struggling through their cardboard chicken and rubber pasta. But even in first class, airline food is crap.