People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was extremely popular 2 years ago, winning the Australian Book of the Year Award, and Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award in June 2008. It was on every Top 10 list in Australia, and subsequently I avoided the trend and didn't engage, until now that is.
Lured by the possibility this book would feature in an up and coming book club I finally took the plunge. Dr Hanna Heath is a rare-book expert based in Australia, and is given the unique opportunity to examine and conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is described as being a 'lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind'.
The author was inspired by the true story of this rare and mysterious Hebrew manuscript, and takes the reader back through the centuries, each time giving us a hint of the manuscript's journey and turbulent history. We soon learn the Haggadah was hidden and protected from the Nazis during WWII, saved from the flames in Venice in 1609 and was in danger several times since it's creation in 1480.
I was fascinated to learn more about the Jewish belief in the 1400s with regard to true representations of people and illustrations. I was also struck by the persecution of the Jewish people throughout the novel, and was surprised that a book filled with such religious turmoil and conflict was so popular with the reading public.
In her examination, Dr Heath finds microscopic debris, a wine stain, a white hair, and while she investigates their origin, the reader is taken back in time to find out what really happened. I thoroughly enjoy this writing technique and find it thrilling to know more than the main character in any novel.
Interspersed throughout the story is the troubled relationship with Hanna's mother and a family secret so big it could irreparably ruin their relationship forever. Whilst this sub-plot was quite interesting and contributed to Hanna's character development, it wasn't pivotal to the story line. Although I must say I really enjoyed the Australian touch and the occasional reference to Australian places during the book.
If you haven't already read this best seller, I would certainly encourage you to pick it up. If you're interested in medieval manuscripts and their preservation, you'll love this book. You'll also enjoy it if you are a fan of the historical fiction genre. However, let it be said that some of the material is heavy and quite serious in terms of religious persecution and conflict.
My rating = ****