Wednesday, May 13, 2009

People of the Book

One of my reading groups chose Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book to discuss this month.   I forgot what we had chosen and only remembered to ask someone about a week before I was supposed to have read it.  I raced through it but  I finished it in time.

The novel is the story of people and of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain.  Brooks tells the story of the people who created it and who saved it from destruction throughout the centuries sometimes at great cost to themselves.  The novel is divided between two stories.  One is the modern story of Hanna, a rare book specialist who is called to Sarajevo in the 1990's to conserve the book, which has been in a bank deposit box during the war and is now to be displayed.  This story takes place over the length of the novel but it is interrupted for brief stories about other persons who were important in the history of the book.   And each of these individual stories ties into something that Hanna found when conserving the book:  a fragment of a butterfly wing, a cat hair, a wine stain, etc.

There seemed to be a bit of disagreement in our group (I was in the kitchen making coffee so I missed most of it) between those who liked the modern story and those who liked the historical stories, but it didn't seem to be a big disagreement.   I thought that one of the saddest parts of the book was that we the reader completely "discovered" the history of the book but Hanna never did.  As in real life, she could only take the clues that she found in the physical book and try to learn from them the barest of detail about where the book had been. 

Each of us had our favorite parts of the historical sections.  Mine was the last section in which a slave in Moorish Spain creates the beautiful pictures to which text is later (in another story) added.  But many in my group thought that the story of the rabbi in Venice was the most poignant.   Interestingly we didn't spend much time talking about the political situation of Sarajevo, although that is a big part of the novel.

Because I read the novel so fast I missed a couple of connections.  The historical sections are told in reverse chronological order and often you discover in another section something that happens to a character you are reading about.   It was good to have a discussion and have people point out those instances.

The one thing we all agreed was that the author had Hanna jump too fast into her relationship with Karaman.  Maybe we're all too pragmatic to believe that people can meet each other and immediately feel that connection - other than, of course, lust.  I also thought that a few of the plot points made things just a little too easy.  For instance, the part in which Hanna just happens to join her mother in the city where her (unknown) father's family lives and then her mother gets into a car accident with Hanna's (unknown) grandmother.  I like the people in my novels to have to work toward discoveries, not have them thrown in their laps. 

I think that bothered me more than anyone else (I'm always more interested in structure than character).  We discussed whether the author just needed to keep the plot moving so that we could move on to the next historical section and everyone in the group seemed satisfied with that explanation.  Everyone except me.  Truthfully, I thought this novel would have been better if the author had decided on one story or the other.  Either a novel about Hanna that was fully developed or a huge historical novel that spans generations.   Again, I'm left to wonder why an author chose to tell such a big story in such a small book.  I would have liked a little more development.