By Saira Toppin
Reading about the past may not always be exciting. It is not always filled with twists, or ups and downs, but Geraldine Brooks makes this happen in her novel People of the Book. The various settings of the book take us to different parts of history that make reading that more enjoyable. This fictional novel receives its inspiration from the true story of a book well known in the Jewish community, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The reader follows the journey of the haggadah starting in Sarajevo in 1996, Vienna in 1894, Tarragona in 1492, and other intriguing locations.
The Haggadah is a prayer book that contains the service for the ritual meal Seder during Passover. People of the Book becomes more than just the travels of a sacred book. It includes lust, temptation, greed, and many other sins of the body. People of the Book is told through two voices, the omniscient narrator, who reveals everyone’s secrets, and Hanna, who is an Australian book expert. It is her job to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah back to its original state. As she does this, the story of the haggadah is told. In the chapter Wine Stains (Venice, 1609), we follow Judah Aryeh venture out into the Carnivale. Since he cannot resist the heart-racing night life, he consumes alcohol, gambles away not only his money, but Doña Reyna’s money, which was to help Jews in the community. He encounters the Sarajevo Haggadah when a patient of his cannot afford treatment. His escapade in the Carnivale, a festival dominated by Christians was a big mistake.
Hanna, our first narrator, seems like a hard, diligent worker, but she has to let her hair down in between down time too. She gets cozy really quick with Ozren, the current owner of the Haggadah and her boss on this new project. Hanna says, “I’m not casual about sex, far from it.” But then goes on to say, “If I do choose to be with someone I want it to stay light and casual.” She seems like the type to get what she needs out of a relationship promptly. Hanna ruins a potential relationship with Ozren by uttering harsh words when she should have bitten her tongue. She does not let this episode ruin her hunt to finding the secrets of the book. In the end, she restores the book, and finds out many interesting elements of the Haggadah’s journey, like being transported by a Muslim family, or when it was first designed by a poor man as a wedding gift.
I do have to say, this is a must read. I finished it in three days. I could not keep it down. I read it to and from work and during down time at home snuggled up on the couch. To find out what happens to Judah Aryeh, pick up this book. To learn more about the Haggadah, Jewish histories, and how things work out for Hanna, pick up this book.
Read to live.