Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Geraldine Brooks

So I finished The People of the Book the other day. I was excited when I heard it was out, which is sort of surprising given how I felt about her previous two novels.

I read The Year of Wonders a few years ago, and I really loved the first 90% of it. Then the end went all Big Tuna on me (for those of you who haven't seen Wild at Heart, that is to say "freaky all out of proportion to even what you have been led to expect). You're reading this tragedy where you think you know all the characters, and then there's this U-turn and you're all, "okay, this is surprising and I'm not sure how it changes the theme or meaning of the novel, but it's an interesting surprise and I'm impressed." And then there's another, far more troubling U-turn, and you're all, "What? What point could you possibly be making by sneaking this in at the end? This completely changes the theme of the book!" The book was, at the last minute, rendered a setup for the tragic punchline at the end.

I read March when it came out, too. This was more of a mixed bag--I think that, if it hadn't been playing off of the beloved Little Women and changed the tone of the characters whose purity I have long admired, I might have liked the book. It's emotionally and morally complicated, and a lot of it is about misunderstanding and how people sometimes aren't communicating and don't even know it. There's a lot of painful violence, and a serious loss of moral innocence in a grown man. Like I said, if it hadn't been Jo and Beth and Meg and Amy's father--Marmee's husband, for crying out loud!--I think I would have found it a good book, if harrowing. But as it is, it left a slightly bad taste in my mouth.

So why was I excited about The People of the Book? I know Geraldine Brooks is a great writer, and I can't say enough how I loved The Nine Parts of Desire, her nonfiction book describing her experiences as a reporter in the Middle East. The book was written in the late 90s, so it lacks the context of the past 10 years of change, but she creates an amazing picture of what it's like to be a woman in an Arab country. The best part, I think, is that she traveled to many different countries, and met a wide variety of people, and she really takes the time to differentiate among them. There's a big difference between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and she tells about all of them. I think this is what makes the book still useful, I think--even though the details have changed in most countries, it's so easy to ignore the differences and call them all "the Middle East," and this book helps to illustrate the range of differences between how Islam is practiced and women are treated in all these places.

So--The People of the Book. I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but this book does something amazing with what are essentially a series of short stories, cinched tightly together by the narrative of the woman who's investigating the history of an amazing, unlikely volume--a centuries-old Jewish book illuminated in the Christian style. We follow Hanna on her detailed investigation--analyzing an insect wing tucked in the pages, a wine stain, a stray hair. We meet her cold, disapproving mother, her mentor, her lover. She's not perfect, but she's smart and competent and sympathetic.

And then, as she learns the scraps that science can tell her about each clue, we get the full story of where each clue comes from. And this is a remarkably well-balanced saga of the history of Jews in Europe. We meet a girl in the '40s who flees from Sarajevo at the beginning of the Holocaust; a Jewish doctor who treats the Christians who hate him in the 1890s, a rabbi in Venice as the Inquisition approaches, and a number of characters in the painful position that is Spain.

Because the modern part of the story is told in Sarajevo, and because more than one story takes place in Spain, the religious theme of the uneasy interaction between faiths in Europe is actually a three-way balance, and the Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish balance is really at the heart of this book. It's so exciting when I learn something (about history, about conservation of old texts), AND am stimulated to think about deeper themes, AND find myself anxiously following the fates of irresistible characters. You should read this book.

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