Posted by: Jeanie F | October 7, 2009

The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book

I really wanted to like this book. For one thing, I generally like my history wrapped up in a fictional narrative. For another, a very dear friend – one with whom I share common literary tastes – recommended it. However, try as I might, I just couldn’t warm to it.

Briefly, The People of the Book is the sometimes-documented, sometimes-imagined history of a historical codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. For those not familiar with the rites of Passover, the haggadah tells the story of the Jews flight from Pharoah to Israel. It forms the narrative and ritual of Passover and keeps the jewish history alive in its people. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real book, is unusual in that it is an illuminated text, painted hundreds of years ago by an unknown artist. It is known to have survived several wars and been rescued at least twice by Muslims. (Photos of the real haggadah are available on Google Images at The novel, The People of the Book, attempts to recreate a possible progression of the people and the times through which the haggadah has passed.

Brooks frames the story with a modern day, post-Bosnian War attempt by Hannah Heath, the protagonist, to restore the book, which had been hidden away by a museum curator. While it is obvious that Brooks has done an incredible amount of research on book restoration and knows the subject thoroughly, this part of the book works as a distraction against the more interesting and powerful story of the haggadah itself. Along with tedious description of details such as counting needle holes in the codex, Brooks tries to pack in every narrative tool in her toolkit – family drama, a sudden and unbelieveable love interest, intrigue, and Naziism. It feels artificial and forced.

The best parts of The People of the Book lie in Brooks chronology, told in reverse from modern times to more ancient. If she had omitted the Hannah Heath story and stuck to the characters, both real and imagined, who wrote, illustrated, loved, and ultimately saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, this would have been a far better book.

Grade: C


  1. I agree with your analysis of the book to a point. I loved the different historical stories that spoke of the Haggadah’s transformation. However, I also enjoyed the life of Hanna. She obviously gets around, and it was fun watching loneliness, companionship, and frustration take on different degrees with her events that take her around the world. I enjoyed the whole book, but it took me a long time to get through with a busy schedule. Perhaps, slowing down the pace of my read helped me to appreciate it more.

  2. Interesting perspective, Bets – it will be fun to talk about on Wednesday! Also interesting to think about how the pace you go through a book affects your enjoyment – we should talk about that, too!!

    See you Wednesday!

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