Sunday, 27 January 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Fourth Estate

"THE book has survived the same human disaster over and over again,” says a character in People of the Book. “You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Conviencia, and everything's humming along, creative, prosperous.

“Then, somehow, this fear, this hate, this need to demonise 'the other' – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extreme Serb nationalists...”

This is the basis for People of the Book – a brilliant set of historical stories linked together by the modern narrator's own story.

The common thread is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a mediaeval prayer book that the narrator, Hanna, is investigating. Hanna has her own problems – daughter of a brilliant but cold surgeon, she's now in love, and also finding her way into her mother's heart.

But not all stories have happy endings.

Hanna's story acts as a web holding in the stories of the Sarajevo Haggadah's travels through the Inquisition, 17th-century Venice, syphilis-ridden Mitteleurope, the Partisan guerrilla war against the Nazis, and the 1990s siege of Sarajevo.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and was really saved by a Muslim during the Serbian attacks on the city, by the way.

“Our leader had said 'It takes two sides to fight a war, and we will not fight'. Not here, not in our precious Sarajevo, our idealistic Olympic city,” says the man Hanna is falling in love with, just after they've met, and just before she starts licking the sauce off his fingers in a restaurant...

If this isn't a bestseller, I'll eat my hat. Such stories, such characters, really a fabulous pageturner.

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