Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Penguin, 2009
Paperback, 400 pages
Source: Purchased at The Poisoned Pen.
First Line: I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn't my usual kind of job.
Australian rare book expert Hanna Heath has been asked to conserve the beautifully illuminated fifteenth-century Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless Hebrew manuscript thought to have been destroyed during the fighting in Bosnia.
As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head.
As Hanna examines each page with great care and wonder, she discovers a series of tiny artifacts left behind in the manuscript: a fragment of an insect's wing, wine stains, salt crystals, and a white hair. These microscopic bits are the keys to unlocking the centuries' old mysteries of the Sarajevo Haggadah and the catalysts that will change Hanna's life forever.
As the insect's wing, then the wine stains, then the salt and hair are analyzed, we learn the history of the ancient book and the lives of the people who had it in their care. Anyone who has ever picked up a book, caressed its cover, and ruffled through its pages wondering about the identities of previous owners or all the places that book has been will absolutely love People of the Book. As Brooks takes us through the centuries, each time period and each caretaker comes to vivid, aching life.
I was deaf and blind to everything around me as I read this book. It's not the first time author Geraldine Brooks has done this to me, and since her latest book (Caleb's Crossing) is on its way to my door, I don't think it will be the last. She is one of the supreme storytellers of her time.
What Hanna does the last time she's with the Haggadah made me cry and made me smile. It also made me think. Around the world today books are under attack from technology, economy, ignorance and indifference. How many of us would be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their survival?