Australian book conservator Hanna Heath gets called to Sarajevo to appraise and restore the recently resurfaced Sarajevo Haggadah (it had been hidden from the war in Bosnia by the Muslim museum curator). She gets to work and finds several little things – a butterfly wing, a white hair, some stains – that each tell us a little more about the Haggadah’s history in WWII in Sarajevo, fin-de-siècle Vienna, 17th century Venice and 15th century Spain.
People of the Book is a book that works better in theory than in practice. But it’s sufficiently well-written to still make for a rather good read and I liked its main character, Hanna.
The structure – Hanna gets more info about some thing in 1996, we make a jump to the time this info pertains to – is a nice idea, but it starts to drag, also because it’s so completely forseeable. You know that the next bit of info uncovered will be yet another clue to a yet earlier stage in the “life” of the haggadah. The story would have profited from a dead-end or at least from not strictly adhering to the chronology.
It’s a fascinating story, though and through the century-spanning narrative it really hammers home how the Jewish people were persecuted for ages, even before WWII.
The historical scenes felt rather accurate (though I have no actual idea how accurate they really were), there were just a few things in fin-de-siècle Vienna that didn’t sit too well with me. Like the behavior of the telephone operators, which went from realtistic to parody in my eyes. Or the fact that she referred to the Waltz as having a “frantic energy.” What? Not even 100 years ago.
As I said, I did like Hanna and the relationship with her mother was interesting, though sometimes a little too clichéd. But when the thing with her father comes up, it just gets too contrived. And I didn’t like the ending to her story with Ozren which was all kinds of sappy.
What I really don’t get though is why this book gets compared to The Da Vinci Code. I mean, okay, they’re both about history and religion but other than that? There’s really not much they have in common.
Summarising: It starts off well and then declines, but it’s a nice read.