I have very much enjoyed Geraldine Brooks' novel People of the Book, but (yes, there is a but) it struck me as a less successful book than the two others of hers I've read, the excellent Year of Wonders and March. Admittedly, it's been a while since I looked at them and I may be mis-remembering, but my recollection is of works which have a greater level of consistency and integrity to them than People of the Book has.
This is the story of a highly important, hugely valuable book - the Sarajevo Haggadah, "a lavishly illustrated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was against illustrations of any kind" - and of how its conservation reveals its history and origins. It is told by way of a modern-day narrative interspersed with episodes from the book's past, so we move back in time from Sarajevo in 1996 when conservator Hanna Heath is called in to work on the book, to the city during the Second World War, then to Vienna in 1894, Venice in the 1600s and so on, each period supplying the answers to the clues to the book's past found by Hanna in her meticulous examination of the precious, mysterious work.
Hanna's own story is very much in the foreground, too; daughter of a top Australian neurosurgeon with whom she doesn't get on, she has never known her father's identity, and has grown up determined to make her own way in the world despite her mother's condescending attitude and evident disappointment that she chose not to follow her into medicine.Without conventional family ties but with an enviable reputation at the top of her field, hers is a life of travel, scholarship and casual relationships, but nothing beats the thrill and interest inherent in her primary work, the conservation of medieval manuscripts: "By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book. I can figure out who they were, or how they worked. That's how I add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge".
That passage might describe the novel itself as it's based on a real book and real events but around fictional characters and a great deal of plausible invention. The author's extensive research shows, but there are sections where it has been incorporated with less finesse than I'd have expected, and to raise one tiny point of irregularity, would a fin-de-siècle Viennese liken an acquisitive person to a bowerbird? Surely that's too Australian a term for that time and place.
Overall I felt there was an uneven tension between the historical strands and the present day one with its suspense and spy thriller-like action, but the drama of the book reflects well the turbulent passage of the Haggadah itself and those who made it or were connected to it in times of extremism, religious intolerance, persecution and war. It's a terrfic story whose technical aspects are fascinating, and in which the protagonist's surprisingly high-powered life engages the reader, but Geraldine Brooks says in an interview that working with a plot ranging over centuries was intimidating and at one point she put the book aside for two years as she felt herself overwhelmed, and I think that sense of the material's being unwieldy does show in the finished piece - it isn't quite as polished as I remember her earlier books being. In the grand scheme of things my criticisms are small ones, and I remain a firm Brooks fan, keen to read her latest, Caleb's Crossing.