Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on People of the Book.
“Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.” When rare book dealer Hannah Heath arrives in Sarajevo to analyze an illuminated 15th-century Spanish Hebrew manuscript, a haggadah, she is cognizant of the value of a book that has survived a 500-year history, passed through the centuries from one to another, from Muslim to Jew, to save it from destruction by the intolerant.
The haggadah has escaped time after time, leaving a few clues trapped in the binding for Dr. Heath to discover: a fragment of insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a hair. One of the earliest illuminated Hebrew books to feature figurative art, this haggadah has been repressed by medieval Jews for religious concerns.
Perhaps made in mid-4th century Spain, when Jews, Christian and Muslims peacefully coexisted, the manuscript begins its troubled journey in the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. It is Dr. Heath’s daunting task to follow the few clues she discovers, backwards in time, each revealing another layer of danger for the haggadah, often preserved by the intervention of Muslims who understand the value of the book beyond the context of the immediate conflict.
Hannah’s investigation leads to 1940’s Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1492 Tarragona, and finally 1480 Seville. Before Hannah has finished her examination, a shocking development brings her confidence crashing down, the good doctor retreating to her native Australia.
Love of the process and its integrity have much to do with Hanna’s chosen field, one denigrated by a neurosurgeon mother who disdains her daughter’s chosen profession. But Hanna is chosen by her career as much as anything else, comforted by the books that survive centuries of man’s intervention.
Impulsively forming a romantic attachment to the head of the Sarajevo museum where the haggadah is housed, Dr. Heath receives a harsh lesson from her relationship with Dr. Ozrem Karaman. It is a surprising tie to her own past that renews Hannah’s broken spirit after Sarajevo, although the brief relationship with Ozrem has yet to run its course.
Brooks undertakes People of the Book with a passion and enthusiasm that translates into the pages: Hannah’s profound respect for the work of centuries; Ozrem’s despair at losing his wife and child during the war in his homeland; the many experts who aid Hannah’s research; and the people who protect the codex through years of terrible danger, Muslims, Jews and Catholics inadvertently joining hands in common purpose.
“To be a human being matters more than to be a Jew, a Muslim, Christian or Orthodox.” Brooks embraces this ecumenical concept, creating a human tapestry that bridges war and hatred in common purpose and tolerance.