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By the Chapter, Day 5 | People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

March 20, 2009

Welcome to By the Chapter. This week’s featured book is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I’d like to thank Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves for sharing hosting duties with me this week.


If you’re not familiar with People of the Book here’s a little background on the book from Amazon:
Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikipedia link), which disappeared during the siege in 1992, has been found, and Hanna has been invited by the U.N. to report on its condition. Missing documents and art works (as Dan Brown and Lev Grossman, among others, have demonstrated) are endlessly appealing, and from this inviting premise Brooks spins her story in two directions. In the present, we follow the resolutely independent Hanna through her thrilling first encounter with the beautifully illustrated codex and her discovery of the tiny signs-a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a drop of salt, a wine stain-that will help her to discover its provenance. Along with the book she also meets its savior, a Muslim librarian named Karaman. Their romance offers both predictable pleasures and genuine surprises, as does the other main relationship in Hanna’s life: her fraught connection with her mother. In the other strand of the narrative we learn, moving backward through time, how the codex came to be lost and found, and made. From the opening section, set in Sarajevo in 1940, to the final section, set in Seville in 1480, these narratives show Brooks writing at her very best. With equal authority she depicts the struggles of a young girl to escape the Nazis, a duel of wits between an inquisitor and a rabbi living in the Venice ghetto, and a girl’s passionate relationship with her mistress in a harem. Like the illustrations in the Haggadah, each of these sections transports the reader to a fully realized, vividly peopled world. And each gives a glimpse of both the long history of anti-Semitism and of the struggle of women toward the independence that Hanna, despite her mother’s lectures, tends to take for granted. Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless.

Link to pictures from the Sarajevo Haggadah
These illustrations are incredibly breathtaking, especially when you realize the age and time in which they were created. Be sure to click through all the links on the left side bar of Sarajevo Haggadah page.



Follow the journey with Elizabeth and myself this week.



Towards the end of the story we meet a scribe, a sofer, who discovers the artwork while walking through a marketplace. He purchases these pages intending to use them as part of a prayer book he is putting together as a wedding present for his nephew. Though our scribe is a humble man, both in his work and life, the gift must be something magnificent as befitting the son of the wealthy man. We also come to learn the scribe’s only son has married outside the religion, converted and is ‘dead’ to his father. Events unfold taking a tragic turn for this family; a child is born and saved. And another part of the Haggadah’s improbable journey is revealed.

Finally we meet the artist who created this beautiful artwork. And things here definitely aren’t as they appear. Our artist is very talented and this talent is nurtured when it goes against what is taught and believed in that day and age. This was my favorite chapter and I will gave away no more except to tell you I was surprised, pleasantly, by the revelations here.


So the Haggadah has completed its journey and what a mysterious and magical odyssey it was. Once again whether fact, fiction or a combination of both I was captivated by these chapters and following this prayer book as it comes into existence was indeed a pleasure.

This book wasn’t without its faults though. Overall I give high marks to People of the Book. The historical chapters were superb and far outweighed those dedicated to Hanna. I was very disappointed in the ending and felt letdown by last three chapters. If I was the author I might have had Hanna write her presentation paper, wrap up the story of the Haggadah and leave it there. Instead we venture into some plotline about a possible switch and bate. It was kind of like watching a movie where the director throws in a scene or two just give a jolt to the viewers but doesn’t make much sense in terms of what’s come before.

I also have issues with Hanna’s personal life in relation to this storyline. Her short-lived personal involvement with Orzen Karaman and her conflicts with her mother didn’t add anything essential to the story. I found them to be distracting. They tended to break up the flow of what was otherwise a very interesting journey littered with fascinating characters through time and place.

Still I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading her other novels, March and Years of Wonder.


If you’ve read, or are currently reading, People of the Book, please share your thoughts with us.

This week’s reading scheduling:
Monday: The Printed Page
Tuesday: Elizabeth’s blog, As usual, I need more bookshelves
Wednesday: The Printed Page
Thursday: Elizabeth from <a href=”
Friday: The Printed Page/Elizabeth from As usual, I need more bookshelves



  1. March 20, 2009 6:21 am

    I enjoyed following along with you as you read this one. It sounds like it’s well worth reading.

  2. March 20, 2009 6:26 am

    I read this last year, and it was one of my favorites of the year. The way that Brooks created the people and the stories was amazing.

  3. March 20, 2009 5:13 pm

    Hello Marcia,

    I read the People of the Book in January but forgot to post my review.
    I posted today when I realized and did not comment on the book. I have two blogs, go to my side bar and you can go to Jewish Rantings. My thoughts are the same as yours. I loved the Jewish history, Yes some of it is true. If you go to my blog back to Dec. and Jan. you will find a article written by the Jewish Bosnian community about the Sarvejo Haggadah. Also go on to Geraldine Brook’s website.

    My memory is a bit fuzzy, so forgive me if details are not totally detailed.
    The last part of the book when she discovers the book is not really the sarvejo hagaddah and goes to Israel and discovers the book is hidden in a Israeli Museum was a bit far fetched and did not connect with the rest of the story. It felt like she rushed the story and wanted to put a finale to give a umph!!. But other than that I did like the style and narrative. Please visit me at Jewish Rantings.
    My take is the same as your’s I did not like the last 100 pages.

  4. March 22, 2009 10:57 am

    I think we had the same thoughts about the ending – I HATE stupid endings like this!! I’m pretty sure I knocked a point off my rating because of this. I also wished the relationship with Ozren had been expanded – I think it could have been a very interesting part of Hanna’s life, and I was disappointed she just let that plot thread drop.

    Overall, though, a great read. Thanks for a fun week – looking forward to the next one!

  5. March 24, 2009 3:34 pm

    The ending reminded me of the movie True Lies which was pretty decent until Arnold S. climbs on the Fighter Jet as it’s flying in between the freeway structures. Then the movie just fell apart for me. Same with this book. For the most part I was enjoying it until bam! weird entered the picture.

  6. March 24, 2009 5:35 pm

    You’ve won an award @ my blog

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