In 2006, Australian author and journalist Geraldine Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "March," an exquisitely imagined novel that took for its protagonist the absent father in "Little Women" and, in an act of creative resuscitation, gave a compelling voice to his version of events. The idea of narrative restoration is also the engine revving at the center of her new novel, "People of the Book," a sprawling historical work -- equal parts "CSI," period piece and romance-among-the-ruins -- that takes for its subject the story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.
The novel opens in 1996 when Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-books expert, is awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call offering her the most important job of her young career: The 600-year-old haggadah, a masterpiece of medieval Judaica, has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war, and needs to be analyzed and prepped for exhibition. Could she take the job? The beauty of this particular codex (it's decorated with gold and silver leaf and illuminated with pigments made from lapis lazuli) as well as its historical importance (until it was found, it was widely believed that figurative painting had been suppressed in Jewish volumes during the medieval period) make this a no-brainer, and soon she has boarded a plane and is making her way through a city where "they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago."
At the library, she meets the man who rescued the haggadah, a tall, attractive Muslim named Ozren Karaman. As we will learn, this is not the first time the haggadah has been rescued from destruction by a Muslim curator. Before Hanna leaves Sarajevo, she will have begun a tumultuous relationship with Ozren and extracted from haggadah's pages four pieces of evidence -- an insect wing, a wine stain, a saltwater stain, and a white hair -- which, when analyzed, will provide clues to the codex's mysterious origin and subsequent travel.
"It's amazing what you can learn about a book by studying the chemistry of a bread crumb," Hanna tells us, and, as each artifact is analyzed, Brooks swirls her narrative to tell the story of how each came to find its way into the haggadah.
In alternating chapters, the story moves back in time, and we meet the people Hanna has become obsessed with, the "people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it." Among them is Lola, a young Jewish girl in World War II-era Sarajevo who fights with the resistance and is ushered to safety (along with the haggadah) in the mountains by Serif Kamal, the Muslim librarian of the National Museum; an anti-Semitic, syphilitic book binder and his Jewish doctor in 1894 Vienna; the alcoholic, conflicted priest who saves the book from being burned in 1609 Venice; a young girl whose family suffers terribly during the Spanish Inquisition; and, in 1480 Seville, we finally meet the mysterious illustrator of the beautiful codex.
All of these sections are richly imagined, almost unbearably tense, and tackle, sometimes obliquely, other times directly, the issues of exodus, marginalization, and brutality during periods of extreme nationalism: the Alhambra Decree, the Waidhofen Manifesto, the Venetian Ghettos, National Socialism, just to name a few. Arcing over these various set pieces, and holding it all together, is the story of Hanna's antiquarian sleuthing, which is much more exciting than it has any right to be. Who knew that "because parchment is flesh, human bacteria can degrade it"? Or that a single cat hair could serve as a paintbrush? Or that there's an actual instrument known as a "video spectral comparator"?
As the book progresses, Hanna's relationship to her own past gets shocked into stark relief, and she becomes an unwitting pawn in a game of touchy international and historical politics regarding the haggadah that will eventually come to a head, "Mission: Impossible" style, back in Sarajevo with her lover Ozren.
This is exciting stuff -- based as it is in historical figures and facts and generously invented when it is not -- and Brooks does a good job moving the plot along. The only complaints one could muster is that there are so many characters involved that interactions sometimes seem rushed, and information sometimes is crammed into the narrative journalistically. Some characters -- such as a limp-wristed Nazi who slaps his gloves on his palm menacingly, and, more problematically, Hanna's mother (who emerges as nothing more than a one-note gorgon) -- teeter dangerously into the land of cliché.
But so what? This is an ambitious book, a pleasure to read, and wholly successful in its attempt to give a sense of how miraculous, unlikely and ultimately binding the history of objects can be.
Ethan Rutherford is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.