Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves her profession, and especially loves it when the two overlap.
The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The People of the Book is easily the best book I’ve read recently. It’s the story of a book conservator working on a very old volume, the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest illuminated Jewish texts. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and many of the historical events discussed in the book are real, but the characters and specific events they experience are fictional. It’s an excellent example of how to do historical fiction “right” in that regard, with a great balance of true history mixed with imagined lives.
The story unfolds using a pretty clever narrative device. The first chapter takes place in 1990s Sarajevo and follows the main character as she examines and conserves the Haggadah, removing particles and samples from the book in order to research the book’s history and thus help to uncover some of it’s remarkable journey across continents and centuries. The items she removes (a hair, the wing of a fly, a sample of a wine stain, and a sample of a salt water stain), each then become subsequent chapters of the book that are spaced evenly between further chapters about the conservator. The first chapter also exposes the reader to the recent history of Sarajevo.
Each of the chapters about the items removed from the book takes place in another time and place (other than 1990s Sarajevo). They work backwards, starting with the most recent addition to the book (the hair, deposited by the last conservator) and moving to the earliest element, thus telling the history of the book in reverse. What’s clever about Brooks’ method is that each of the episodes also reveals a period in Jewish history (and world history) as well.
The plot of the chapters that follow the conservator revolve around the history of the book, the conflict in Sarajevo, the conservator’s personal life, and the fate of the Haggadah. It’s incredibly well done. My only complaint was that I really didn’t like the conservator. I found her annoying and difficult (if not impossible) to relate to. Yet, even as I was experiencing that in the first chapter, I was also totally engrossed in the book to the degree that I quite literally felt transported to war torn Sarajevo, not an easy feat when riding the subway to work in the morning. But that’s how powerful it is: within the first 10 minutes of reading the book, I was completely absorbed, fascinated by the Haggadah, engrossed in the plot, and unwilling to put the book down. It’s an excellent work of historical fiction, and the details about the conservator’s work are great fun for those who find the handling of rare materials interesting.
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Explore other REPS Recommendations. Interested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).