In People Of The Book, author Geraldine Brooks has created an amazing piece of historical fiction, woven around and inspired by the true story of a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. In the story, Australian Hanna Heath is called upon to restore the Haggadah, which has been rescued from destruction during the Bosnian war. A brilliant and passionate expert in her field, Heath discovers a number of things within the book – a fragment of an insect's wing, wine stains, an inscription in the margins of a page, a small bit of salt, and a single white hair. These become clues which she pursues to try to learn the answers to the riddle of how this beautiful manuscript found it's way from fifteenth-century Spain to Sarajevo. Heath's conjectures about the Haggadah are sometimes close to the truth, truths which are illustrated through Brook's skillful storytelling as the book goes back and forth between Heath's narration and the different periods of history.
I was especially impressed with the vast amount of research (in numerous disciplines) that Brooks must have done to ensure historical fidelity. The characters she creates in both Hanna's story and the historical vignettes are people with strengths and weaknesses within whom I could find parts of myself. They possess the ability to encourage and exhort, as well as prick the conscience. The stories have as their common theme the Haggadah, of course, but just as strong is another theme suggested by a second meaning of the book's title. Muslims believe that God had revealed Himself to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. While Islam also believes that Jews and Christians have strayed from the true faith, they are still called People Of The Book. This thread is best summarized by a quote from the book. “... the Haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us - to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us - that to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” This, I believe, was the real story that Brooks was telling here.
I had never heard of Geraldine Brooks or the Sarajevo Haggadah before I found this book on the shelves of our used bookstore, but I have to say that People Of The Book was one of the best I have read in some time. I was sorry to turn the last page, but am looking forward to finding other things she has written.