Most of the people who read this review also live and work within the halls of a university, a place of knowledge and learning, of seeking information and of developing the wisdom to use that information properly. Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brook's novel, People of the Book, is in many ways a university in clothbound form; a treasure house of information spun within the context of an incredibly well-crafted and intricately beautiful tale of mystery, intrigue and, above all else, how the past can shape our perceptions of the present.
The story is primarily about an actual book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is one of the oldest surviving Jewish illustrated texts, unusual for its vibrant pictures that were typically banned due to orthodox laws against the creation of "graven images." In the novel, fictional Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is tending the ancient text, following its survival of the bombing of Sarajevo in 1996. She discovers a number of small clues in its pages - an insect's wing, a wine stain, salt crystals and a white hair - and her analysis of these samples jumps the story back to those moments in the book's history.
Published in January, People of the Book is a historical novel that develops a fictional storyline within the context of the ongoing backdrop of time gone by. Immediate comparisons to Dan Brown's 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, spring to mind, as a lackluster heroine uses seemingly impractical academic skills to piece together an important mystery. But Brooks' story is more about substance than flash. It certainly isn't as cinematic or controversial as Brown's opus, but it has a great deal more in the way of academic underpinning. In short, she did her research - all of it - and will most likely not face the same accusations of inaccuracy as Brown did. That being said, however, it seems unlikely that any studio will ever option this for an action film.
With an incredible talent for dovetailing the past and present storylines in a fashion that draws her readers in and keeps them wondering, Brooks is a marvelous storyteller whose yarn will keep anyone glued to the page. It is, however, a book about the subtler side of history; the human experience, so to speak. So it isn't for everyone, but anyone who understands that the history of an object is intimately connected to its present significance will not only enjoy this novel, but will be profoundly affected by it.