People of the Book, By Geraldine Brooks

A young book conservator uncovers forensic clues from an ancient manuscript
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The Independent Culture

Although it contains religious mysteries, ancient secrets, sacred texts and a young protagonist intent on uncovering the truth, People of the Book has more in common with A S Byatt's Possession than it does Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It is also worth noting that Geraldine Brooks's previous novel, 2005's March, won its Australia-born, US-based author both the Pulitzer Prize and an endorsement from the Richard & Judy Book Club (and it is very much a matter of opinion which carries more weight these days).

Brooks's third novel is, as its title suggests, a literary mystery in which the mystery is revealed through literature; not what one might find from reading between the lines of an ancient manuscript, but what an expert might uncover by examining the fragments, stains and forensic clues within the codex itself. Inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah, an early illuminated Jewish manuscript that survived both the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis, Brooks tells the story of the people behind the book, working backwards from its most recent escape act, to its creation.

The story begins in Sarajevo in 1996 with a young Australian book conservator, Hannah Heath, surprisingly finding herself the first choice for the job of examining this historic volume. As she examines the manuscript under the watchful eye of the UN, she discovers a fine white hair, a fragment from an insect's wing, a wine stain that contains blood and traces of salt. How and when these objects came to be there gives People of the Book its shape and structure as subsequent chapters trace the tales behind each of these tiny clues.

We are told early on that if Hannah "wanted a partner, [she'd] join a law firm". But it is not long before she is – in a manner that at first feels contrived but then makes perfect sense – falling in love with Ozren, the Muslim curator and librarian who is the latest in a line of non-Jews to have saved this book from destruction.

As the various people of the book take us from Sarajevo to Vienna (a brilliant episode concerning an anti-Semitic and syphilitic bookbinder), to Venice to Barcelona, to Seville and Jerusalem, Brooks expertly guides us to the conclusion that the world is made up of only two types of people: those who would destroy books and those who would give their lives to save them. This illuminating novel, like its predecessor, is well worthy of both Pulitzer and prime-time approbation.

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