People of the Book Summary

Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book

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People of the Book Summary

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People of the Book is a historical novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. It tells the story of a passionate rare-book expert who traces the life of an old iconic manuscript from its creation to its journey through war, exile and numerous intrigues. Published in 2008 by Viking, this adult novel received great critical acclaim and featured on the New York Times bestseller list. Brooks has an extensive background in journalism and covered crises upon which this book is based. The book’s account of the real Sarajevo Haggadah manuscript is fictionalised.

The protagonist is Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert. She lives a relatively solitary life and is dedicated to her work. Her tumultuous relationship with her mother leaves her stunted and aloof. The book opens in the spring of 1996, in Sarajevo. Bosnia is divided by civil war, but currently under ceasefire. Hanna has recently travelled to Bosnia to examine a recently-discovered manuscript. Hanna typically works alone in laboratories, but now UN and local army officials shadow her every move given the delicate political situation. Finally, Hanna receives the manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Rescued from bombing during the conflict, this manuscript is a significant artefact which the Bosnian community wishes to display so everyone can appreciate their multicultural, multifaceted identity. Hanna must restore this holy Jewish book to its former state.

Hanna notes the unusual number of detailed, intricate illustrations within the book and is immediately drawn to it. She sets about restoring the book and intends to learn as much as she can about it. She wants to know where the book has been, who handled it and what everyone can learn from its pages. The stories revealed to readers, however, are not learned fully by Hanna – readers are treated to snapshots of additional information she herself did not have. As she restores the manuscript, she discovers a handful of strange clues in this order: an incomplete butterfly wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, a white hair and signs of missing grooves around the binding. The clues form the chapters in turn and take Hanna on journeys across Europe.

Hanna identifies the butterfly wing as belonging to insects found only within a limited range, which is then visited in this chapter. Hanna discovers the story of a young girl whose entire family dies at Nazi hands. After a failed rescue attempt, the girl must give up on her family and find a new life for herself. She eventually finds shelter with a Muslim family in Bosnia, who have access to the Haggadah. They help her and the Haggadah escape to the mountains when Nazis come for the Jews. It is within these mountains that the butterfly wing originates. Hanna then considers the next chapter, within which she discovers a wine stain. This chapter takes readers to 17th-century Venice where a Jewish rabbi intends to marry a noble lady who owns the Haggadah at this point. The rabbi, however, enjoys gambling, and bets the Haggadah in a wager against a Catholic priest. If he loses, the priest will burn it. The wager results in a drunken argument and wine spills onto the page. The rabbi keeps the Haggadah.

The narrative then moves to 15th-century Tarragona to trace the origins of the salt crystals. This takes place during the Inquisition where a man is tortured for possessing Hebrew scripture – the Haggadah illustrations. He escapes with the Haggadah to caves by the sea, where the bindings accumulate sea salt. The white hair Hanna finds next is connected to a 14th-century Turkish cat and a family of artists, one of whom becomes a famous painter working with brushes made from cat hair. Again, the Haggadah travels with its owner and survives every transition. Finally, Hanna notices the missing grooves. These date to Sigmund Freud’s Vienna and a time of rampant venereal disease. The book-binder responsible for looking after the Haggadah had a late-stage syphilis infection. He stole the silver clasps around the bindings to pay for a rumoured treatment – which he did not receive.

Hanna’s own journey is also not straightforward. Other scholars and professors question her restorations and her interpretations of the book, and she leaves halfway through the restoration. However, she cannot shake off the need to learn everything she can about the book and complete her assignment, so she returns to follow it through and prove the others wrong. By the end, Hanna discovers she may have Jewish heritage and her entire identity can be questioned. What’s significant about Hanna is she moves from being cold and detached, driven only by work, to someone passionate about the human experience and keen to form meaningful relationships. She is only beginning to find herself and the novel does not, as such, have a concrete ending. The Haggadah itself transcends categorisation and never truly belongs to anyone who owns it or handles it. It is truly a book for the people and there is a sense its story will never really end – its story, like Hanna’s, is only beginning.