Book Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Personal narrative and the way it affects and changes an object is a major theme of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. Brooks was inspired to write the novel based on actual events surrounding the discovery and recovery of the Sarajevo Haggadah. In Brooks’ fictionalized account, a manuscript conservator named Hanna Heath is commissioned to examine the ancient text before its placement in a museum’s collection. In analyzing the haggadah, she finds a number of odd an out-of-place items: a white hair, an unidentified stain, a gossamer wing, and more. Even as Hannah is all research and science in discovering the hidden history of this book, personal narratives arise that give life and breadth to the text itself.

I really enjoyed learning more about the people whose hands this haggadah had passed through. But when the novel would refocus on the present, and on Hanna, I just kept losing interest. I did not particularly like her as a character, and I didn’t always believe in the authenticity of her actions or motives. I found myself eager for her to discover a new twist or turn in the pages of the haggadah, just so we could at least radiate out into a new adventure.

I also found myself frequently annoyed by the professorial tone Brooks sometimes employed. I had to resist the urge to keep Google at my fingertips – there was just SO much world history referenced throughout the book, along with many (MANY) foreign words and phrases. I know I risk sounding like a willing idiot by saying this, but I would have appreciated more of a “layman’s” approach to this story.

Even so, I really did enjoy People of the Book. I thought the premise behind it was fascinating, and – as I said – I became easily engrossed in the different intimate stories coursing through the haggadah’s pages. I read this as part of a book club, and we all felt there were good, weighty themes to discuss and many personal opinions to be shared about this unique novel.

An essay Brooks wrote for the New Yorker, detailing the WWII history of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Dec 2007)

The historical origins of the phrase “People of the Book”


*Disclosure: Affiliate link included.