Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I'm listening to this one on audio, and while the book begins well, it simply doesn't sustain for the long run. I know I am going to finish it, because, well, it's not like it's taking up time I could use for much else--it's hard to actually read a book while driving, but I can listen to one.

I will also take some breaks from it and listen to something funny once in a while. And I can't guarantee that I will come back to it promptly.

Plot summary: In 1996, Our Narrator is a 30-something Australian book conservationist, who is called in to stabilize a precious 14th century Haggadah that has been saved from the bombing of Sarajevo. The book is unusual in that it has been exquisitely illuminated, something highly unusual for Jewish books, which tended to take the injunction against the making of idols and images seriously. As she works on the book, she discovers small items that could give her clues as to the book's history: a fragment of a butterfly wing, a small white hair, a wine stain, salt crystals, grooves on the cheap 19th century rebinding that indicate that there should have been a clasp to keep the book closed.

The story of Hannah Heath as she analyzes these fragments is interleaved (ha!) with the stories of the people who left behind the clues she has found. Brooks doesn't try to show that Hannah learns these stories--no, only we, the readers, are privileged to learn the history of the book's previous owners and makers.

The stories work backwards in time, but are tied to the clue Hannah found. So the butterfly wing is identified as having belonged to an insect that had a range limited to a small area of mountains. We are then whisked back to 1945, and a young Jewish woman whose entire family is killed by Nazi. Brooks invests a great deal of detail into the story of the girl and her working class roots. Her father was ordered to report to a labor camp, which he did, thinking that because he was strong he would survive. Of course, it wasn't actually a labor camp. The rest of her family, all females, was rounded up and locked into a church. Our girl (whose name I have forgotten, as I have for most of the characters) breaks in to try to rescue them, and then is forced to break out as the Nazis arrive. There is a young girl who insists she can get them to the Resistance, so the two of them set out. They find the young men of their village who had previously attended Zionist propaganda meetings, and she earns her way into the group by washing their clothes free of lice. She stays on as laundress and mule wrangler until Tito orders the irregulars home.

Of course, there is no home, so she joins one of the older boys and the younger sister who got them there, and they attempt to walk out of country--like the Von Trapps at the end of The Sound of Music. But illness and frostbite cripple her companions, who commit suicide by walking out onto thin ice over a lake. She stumbles back into Sarajevo (I believe) and ends up being sheltered by a Muslim couple. The wife is her own age, the husband is older and works in the museum that housed the Haggadah. The Nazis are rounding up Jewish books for burning, so the Muslim husband conspires with the head of the museum to trick the commandant into believing that the book was already taken away. He smuggles the book out of the library, and the sends the Jewish girl and the book to a sanctuary in the mountains.

The missing clasps turn out to be a story of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the world of Sigmund Freud, growing anti-Semitism, and (apparently) rampant venereal disease. The book binder given the task of re-binding the Haggadah is in the later stages of tertiary syphilis, and there is a chance of a cure, which is, of course, expensive and only available from a Jewish doctor. The book binder is desperate for the cure, and so he steals the silver clasps that came with the Haggadah, and offers them as payment. The doctor is not inclined to accept them, but then he realizes that the clever angel-wings-around-roses clasp would make two lovely pairs of earrings: one pair as a sending off present for his mistress (of whom he is beginning to tire) and the other for his wife--who he has discovered is having an affair, which reignites his interest in her.

The wine stain propels us back to Venice, at a time when the Pope's inquisition is genially ignored by the more cosmopolitan Venetians. We meet a silver tongued orator of a Jewish rabbi, who is such a gifted preacher that the local Catholic priests attend synagogue in order to steal and recycle his sermons. The rabbi is good friends with a noble lady, who pretends to have converted, but secretly meets the rabbi to give him gold for the Jewish poor. She wishes to leave Venice for the Ottoman Empire, where Jews are more welcome--as she wishes to marry. She is the current owner of the Haggadah, and needs to have it passed by the censor so she can take it with her.

The rabbi has his own dark secret--he likes to mask at Carnivale and go gamble with the lady's money. In mask and cape, he is no longer identifiably Jewish. Brooks gives us a loooooong and detailed account of his giving into temptation, the machinations he takes to get to the gambling house, the many hands of cards he plays, his ultimate loss of all the gold, and his humiliation at being spotted as a Jew.

Once rattled, he is no longer the flawless orator, and he makes the mistake of presuming on his friendship with the Catholic censor on a morning when the priest has a hell of a hangover. They bicker and wrestle with theology while the priest continues to drink communion wine. He reaches the tipping point and becomes an angry drunk, and forces the rabbi into a wager. The stakes are the Haggadah--if the rabbi wins, he will get the signature, although several pages will be redacted. If he loses, the entire book will be burned. The priest is too drunk to run the wager properly, and the rabbi wins. Oh, but the priest has rigged the bet, and then he kicks the rabbi out of his chambers. Once again alone, but drunk, the priest has a nervous breakdown, spilling wine and cutting himself on the glass, as he experiences flashbacks that reveal that he himself was born a Jew!

The salt crystals are experimentally confirmed to be sea salt, taking us back to 1492--the time Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. A Jewish calligrapher buys the unbound illuminations from a Moorish refugee and writes them into a Haggadah as a wedding gift for his rich nephew. He has his own troubles, however, as his only son has converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Spanish girl. Father declares his son is dead, and has even sat shiva for him. But when the son is picked up by the Inquisition, the father goes to ask his rich brother to ransom the young man.

But all the Jewish gold in Spain has to be dedicated to a bribe to forestall the rulers from ordering all the Jews to be expelled, converted, or killed. So we are treated to the horror of the young man's torture, which I won't repeat here. His crime was possession of a leather tefillin with Hebrew scripture inside. He had it as a remembrance of his family; the Inquisition saw it as evidence of a "false conversion." His wife's family refused to make any effort to ransom him, out of fear that they themselves were now vulnerable to accusations.

The calligrapher's daughter, Ruti, was having an affair with the book binder, and was dallying with him on scraps of tanned leather when the Inquisition came to her father's house looking for her. Her brother had named her as the one who brought him the tefillin: had tempted him to renounce Jesus. The thugs looking for her beat her father to death. Her uncle comes back from the capital where the audience with Ferdinand and Isabella (with special guest appearance by Torquamada!) has not gone well. He has to persuade the village to leave Spain.

Ruti manages not to be caught by the Inquisition, running off with the Haggadah (which she was supposed to deliver home) to some caves she knew. How did she know about the caves? Because she used to sneak off to go study kabballah secretly--something only men over 40 were allowed to study. But who is already at the cave? Her brother's pregnant wife, who is about to deliver the baby: who looks to have been born dead, but comes back to life. So Ruti immerses him into the sea in order to turn him back into a Jew, and takes off with him.

The white hair is identified in contemporary England as belonging to a cat, with pigment caught in the cuticle, as if someone dyed the cat's hair. We end up in 14th century Turkey, with a Muslim slave embarassed to be a slave to a Jewish doctor. With a flashback within a flashback (within yet another flashback), the first person narrator is a small child in a polygamous household, with an elderly father who is a doctor. Owing to a number of coincidences, the narrator is found to have some talent with painting, and begins to illustrate the medical books, so that the herbal cures can be identified even if the plants are called different things in different areas.

The happy family starts off for a hajj, but is attacked by Berbers, and our narrator is sold as a slave to a book maker, and starts at the bottom of the business preparing parchment, but soon is noticed for the ability to paint likenesses. Which is not something much in demand, as radical iconoclasts have been vandalizing books on the basis that humans should not usurp God's creative prerogative. But conveniently, the Emir has fallen foolishly in love with a Christian captive, made her his Emira, and wants a likeness to take with him on his siege of Christian towns in Spain. Fortunately, it turns out the narrator won't have to be made a eunuch, because she's a girl!

So after perfunctorily being raped by the artist who owned her, she is sent off to the palace, where she paints the Emira and they spend the time the Emir is away in Hot Medieval Islamic Lesbian (implied) Sex. Because there was so much of that between white Spanish Christian captives and indigo dyed Muslims forced to spend weeks in the empty rooms of the harem. But times look rough for our heroines--the Emir's son by his first wife (who was sent packing when the Christian woman was brought home) plans to murder his father and rule! So the Moorish painter is given away to the Emira's ob/gyn (another Jewish doctor) along with the Emira's brother to keep them both safe. The Emira manages to escape herself to a convent, and her child turns out to be a girl, so there is no threat there.

While living with the Jewish Doctor, the Moorish painter begins to learn about Judaism, and begins to paint images for the doctor's deaf-mute son, so he can learn about his own heritage. Oh, and her brushes were made with cat hair.

And thus, we have worked backwards to encompass all the steps to creating the book that Hannah was asked to stabilize for display! All the clues left in the book have been accounted for! But don't think that Hannah merely served as CSI:Book Restoration--oh no! She has her own troubled relationship with a cold and distant mother who is a world famous neurosurgeon. Who, it turns out, fell in love early in her career with a Jewish artist from Australia! Who died after surgery to remove a brain tumor, which was causing him to go blind! And while he could have successfully lived if he'd opted for radiation therapy, that wouldn't have given him back his sight, so he went for the riskier surgery, because painting was more important to him than the love of the surgeon and the impending birth of his first child! But mom was cold and withholding, and wouldn't let the artist's extended family ever see the baby until Hannah was in her 30s and her (unknown) grandmother had died in an auto accident while driving Dr. Mom around Boston! So since Dr. Mom was in the hospital recovering from the accident, Hannah had to go sit shiva with the family she never knew she had.

There is also a fling with the librarian who rescued the Haggadah from the Sarajevo museum during the Bosnian wars. His wife was killed by a sniper, and a bullet fragment went into the skull of his baby son, so now he has a dead wife and a vegetative son! And he keeps a giant painting of the two of them in his bedroom, to which he brings Hannah, because there is nothing weird about that at all!

And in the end, this book is just exhausting. There is so much plot, so much melodrama packed into it by using the device of skipping through history. There is no story that is not about a traumatic event, no moment in history that is not a major turning point in the life of the Jews. The book never seems to belong to anyone who actually uses it, or treasures it as a religious item. It's always something in contention, something being passed around from person to person. The stakes are always life-or-death--expulsion, torture, lesbian cross-cultural sex. People are impaled on stakes, forced to watch their wives raped and children kidnapped; corpses left to desert vultures; un-attended child-birth; racial humiliation; genocide.

At the same time, this book is terribly cold. Family members shun each other, religious calling is nothing more than a sanctuary from murder or the shame of being born Jewish. The Jewish families that possess the Haggadah never use it for seder; they are too busy being murdered apparently. It's a fairly cynical novel--the Haggadah is never loved, never treasured as a family relic, never shown except as the byproduct of melodrama. It's as though Brooks has only a theoretical understanding of what a Haggadah means, and she has a blood-thirsty imagination that can't be set to the quieter themes.

A word about the audio book. One of the problems with an audio book is that it's hard to keep track of how close you are to the end. I think I'm almost finished, but I could be horribly wrong and have hours and hours left. Whereas if I had the actual codex in my hand, I could immediately begin skimming once I knew there were only so many pages left.

The narrator, Edwina Wren, is also great at the start, but begins to wear as the hours (almost 14 of them!) pass. Her contemporary narration as Hannah Heath is sharp and clear. As the narrative skips through time, however, she develops these vague accents that all begin to sound alike. The Italian noblewoman invariably ends-a her words-a with the stereotypical Italian accent from-a vaudeville. The Spanish Jewish doctor and the Yugoslav Muslim sound exactly the same. The medieval African Tuareg sounds exactly like the Jewish Sarajevan from WWII. And they are all vaudeville-caliber accents.

So, while the book is basically solidly crafted, it's hard to recommend it. The "history" covered in the book is mostly sensationalistic, the religion is cliched, the pace is exhausting, and the characterization is thin. It's hard to see any of the hundreds of people who flit through the plot as three dimensional, with the possible exception of Hannah's mother--who is herself a cliche.

Some of the best information of the book is hopelessly short changed. The most interesting part of the book is the beginning, when Hannah Heath describes how old books were made: how pigments were created, how gold leaf is hammered. There is a color she describes that no longer exists: it was made by feeding cows on a diet of only mangoes, then the color was distilled from their urine. The British forbid this practice while ruling India, as too hard on the cows.

Yet after the wealth of fascinating information like this, once Hannah sits down to the book, the actual task of stabilizing and restoring it are pushed off stage, in favor of how many days she slept with the librarian who saved it.

So, if you are stuck at an airport with nothing to read, it's fine and won't cause you to throw the book down the aisle in frustration. However, with so many other books out there, it's not really worth the time.


presnick said...

You have a great review of Brooks' book. I'm suppose to say a few words about the book tonight and I can't wait to read to my book group some of your very accurate descriptions. THANK YOU!!!

Cate Ross said...

So--enquiring minds want to know--what did your book club think of this book? It's been generally well regarded, although I can't love it myself.

Jolly Jacob said...

I totally agree with your review. I picked it a couple of days ago for a book club and tried to plod through the pages. The historical information and the number of characters are quite overwhelming. At one point, I had to make a note of all the characters and their relationships in my diary.

But I never made it past 60 % on my kindle.

Karen said...

I just finished the book and I absolutely loved it... I cried so many times as I listened to it during my commute. I loved that Hannah's relationship with her mother was built on lies, I often get tired of perfect relationships and it's nice to read something real. I love that the person who illustrated the Haggahah was not only on the book, but was not the person anyone expected it to be...despite decades of religious hate and wars, this was done...so amazing and a great lesson.

DeviWolf said...

I am wondering if the blogger read the same book I did, or if the fact that she listened to an insufficiently talented narrator who could not convey all the accents of all the different people made the story line too confusing, or if perhaps this is a book better read visually than listened to, since description of the visual surroundings is important to creating the historical atmosphere. I very much enjoyed this book and its vivid vignettes of moments in Jewish (and other) history. One complaint the blogger made was that there is "no moment in history that is not a major turning point in the life of the Jews." The situation of the Jews in Venice was ongoing, as was the growing anti-Semitism in Germany around the turn of the previous century, so these were hardly turning points. The blogger complains that only we as readers are privileged to learn the history of the book based on the clues of the cat's hair, etc. I found that more realistic than the protagonist being able to learn anything based on such minimal evidence. I do agree that too much time was spent on the agonizing of the Venetian rabbi, that the personality of the mother was overblown, and the story of the father's demise was too melodramatic - but they detracted very little from the overall quality of the book.