Monday, July 27, 2009

Review 4: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

This book traces the story of Sarajevo Haggadah from its creation to its restoration by Hanna Heath, the first-person narrator of the story, except in the flashback sections.

This is a book about a book and, being a lover of books, I should just love this, right? Wrong. I did not like this book. This is like the time I really liked algebra and number theory and decided to try algebraic number theory only to find myself drowning in a sea of nasty numbers.

Heinrich Heine is often quoted saying “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn men”. This book begins with that quote, somewhat appropriately. Quite coincidentally, I am currently reading another book which also begins with the same quote (Elias Canetti, Auto-da-fé), also very appropriately. Both books inspire in me a horror of burning men but only one inspires a horror of burning books.

There are no physical horrors described in Auto-da-fé, but ignorance, particularly of books, is portrayed in such a cynical and disturbing manner that I worry for Kien’s books even though I find Kien himself despicable; Canetti’s book conveys that book burnings are abhorrent. Brooks’s does not.

Auto-da-fés prefigure in a few places in People of the Book but only because of the physical suffering and torture. Just as the whole book operates at a primitive level (with the attractive female lead discovering herself and the action sequences and heart-tearing scenes of the other people of the haggadah), the reference to Heine’s quote works at a primitive level. With all her gore, Geraldine Brooks manages to inspire a repulsion to burning flesh and human pain, but like the primitive man that can only sate his hunger and lust, she does not have a degree of refinement necessary to spare energy and love for the actual book.

When she discloses what the book means to her characters, her words are singularly unconvincing and trite. There are some wafts of airy statements about the goodness of books but nothing that touches anyone deeply. Brooks is much more concerned with Hanna, liebchen’s love life and betrayals and the Heine quote feels to me to be attached mostly for show and because it superficially fits the book.

The abuse of Heine’s quote is a point close to the heart of why I did not like this book. The other is Brook’s writing style. “Show, don’t tell”, writer are always told. Brooks certainly does show here, but it annoyed me. Immensely. Following the main character (in first person, which I don’t like due to the inherent lack of detachment and its relation to the mother of all 1st person atrocities) like a buzzing fly is annoying. Describing all the action, step by step, with trite phrases is not cool. There are other, better ways to show without hitting the reader over the head with gripping details. There are better ways to bring the reader into the character’s world without beating down their spirits with gratuitous descriptions of brutality (which oddly didn’t affect me much thanks be to being desensitized by a desensitizing book – maybe that’s why I found it easy not to be invested in the book: second-rate violence) and then dragging them by the heel around the walls of the author’s world.

On the positive side, this book does trace the history of a most interest book, albeit in a fanciful way. It presents many eras of history (Spanish inquisition, etc) and I can understand why people think it’s an intellectually stimulating book. It makes history easy to read because of the underlying story that everything is pulled back to. On that historical note, I’d like to conclude with the comment that Isabella of Castile was such a good queen; she was strong-willed, brilliant and held her own in a structure of power which heavily favoured men (unlike Hanna, who buckled under pressure from her male colleagues in a central scene of the book). Except that one thing, which is the Expulsion of the Jews, as portrayed in this book.


  1. You felt that A Clockwork Orange was desensitizing? When I read it a couple of years ago, although it was violent, I didn't feel that it was uncomfortably violent. I kinda felt that such a disturbing subject was written in (strangely enough) a playful way. Even watching the movie I didn't think it was that bad.

    Or maybe I just don't remember it correctly? Who knows.

    Pity the book didn't work out for you; it seems like it would've been interesting.

  2. Perhaps it wasn't desensitizing? Hmm, now I don't remember. But I do remember it was very well-written and, you're right, kind of playful.