People of the Book

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking. 372 pp. $25.95


Reviewed by Susan Comninos


People of the Book

, by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, is something of a literary smorgasbord. Part historical novel, part mystery, part bodice-ripper, the tale, based on a true story, seeks to explain how a Jewish Passover haggadah escaped destruction under the Spanish Inquisition to end up in a library in war-torn Sarajevo in the 1990s.

The ambitious novel spans five centuries. It winds through 15th-century Spain, where Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted until the Roman Catholic Church began to burn Hebrew books and their readers, and twists through the narrow streets of Venice, where Sephardic Jews fled after their expulsion from Spain. It takes us to fin-de-siècle Vienna, where growing anti-Semitism presaged Hitler's rise to power, and scales the mountains of Sarajevo, along with a Jewish girl who fought with Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis.

Confused? Or intrigued? Depending on their literary tastes, Brooks' readers will be either one or the other, or both, as they travel through a book that is a dizzying mix of genres.

Previous novels by the author reflect her penchant for history. In 2006, Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for

March

, which borrows its title character from the American classic

Little Women

, and imagines a pacifist military chaplain's response to the Civil War. In 2001, her book

Year of Wonders

fictionalized the plague's arrival in 1666 England.

Brooks' bona fides as a writer also include journalism. For years, she worked as a war correspondent in international hot spots, including the Middle East, Somalia and Bosnia.

So perhaps it's not surprising that a strong grounding in facts, rather than well-drawn characters or an easy narrative, drives her

People of the Book

. The title refers at once to the Jews of antiquity, the first monotheists, whose covenant with God is limned by the Old Testament, and the more modern Jews, hounded across Europe by members of subsequent faiths.

People of the Book

is, in one sense, a damning text. It traces the historic cruelty of Islamic conquerors in Europe - and, to a greater extent, the Church - to non-adherents under their control. But it also stresses the bravery of individuals - in this case, of Muslims - who risked their lives to save the haggadah. They, too, are people of the book, whose peripatetic journey Brooks' novel covers.

At the novel's start, the haggadah, a beautifully illustrated book of the Passover service, comes to light in 1990s Sarajevo, after being rescued from falling Serbian bombs by a Muslim librarian, Ozren Karaman. A rare-books expert from Australia, Hanna Heath, is brought in to analyze and conserve the medieval book, and she becomes the agent for unraveling the mystery of its journey through time and space.

Hanna's clues are a wine stain here, a pressed insect wing there - relics she shows to experts around the world, seeking not only to determine the origins of the haggadah, but also to pin down where and when it passed from hand to hand on its flight from danger.

People of the Book

is indeed reality-based. Twice in the last 70 years, two Muslim men, Dervis Korkut and Enver Imamovic, acted independently and heroically to preserve the haggadah when it was in their charge. The first, a renowned Islamic scholar at the National Museum of Bosnia, spirited it away from a Nazi general for safekeeping at a mosque in the mountains. The second, a librarian in 1990s Sarajevo, saved the manuscript during Serbian shelling of the city by securing it in a bank vault.

If

People of the Book

is grounded in fact, however, it's also a morality tale writ large. The novel treats the coexistence of faiths in pre-1990s Sarajevo as an Eden that's been temporarily lost, but that can be regained, and perhaps that's the case. Still, the predictable affair that ensues between Ozren and Hanna (who learns she's half-Christian and half-Jewish) seems more an embodiment of the "we can all get along" principle than a genuine relationship between two real people.

More, the novel, in its proselytizing zeal for universality, sometimes puts anachronistic lingo in the mouths of its medieval characters. For instance, the refusal of a Moorish slave girl to humiliate a Christian woman - by painting her naked likeness for their Muslim captor - is explained by a self-help declaration: " 'No . . . I can't do this. I know what it is to be raped. You can't ask me to assist your rapist.' "

People of the Book

shouldn't have to rely on such heavy-handed prose or pointed making of points. A simple explication of the real-life story of the Sarajevo haggadah - one of individual bravery in the face of a larger brutality - would have sufficed.

Susan Comninos is a writer and poet in Upstate New York. She has covered books for the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Her poetry has appeared most recently in "The Blueline Anthology."