The title of Geraldine Brooks' latest novel has a dual meaning. It's a phrase used by Muslims to designate the common religious heritage they share with Christians and Jews; in Islamic law, adherents of the latter two traditions are called "people of the Book," that book being the Hebrew scriptures that delineate the Abrahamic lineage all three groups share. And Muslims, Christians, and Jews all figure into this novel's story about the sumptuously illustrated Sarajevo haggadah, a real-life handbook for the Passover seder, dating from the 15th century. But Brooks wants to explore the particular Muslims, Christians, and Jews through whose hands she imagines that the precious haggadah passed, from Spain to Venice to Vienna to Bosnia, over more than five centuries. The people of this particular book made it, preserved it, altered it, threatened to destroy it, and finally found within it a model of pluralism that expresses the values held dear by untold millions of contemporary people of the Book, though that ideal is often obscured by violent religious conflict.
Brooks structures People Of The Book as a series of flashbacks, anchored by the contemporary first-person perspective of Hanna, an Australian rare-book conservator summoned to work on the Sarajevo haggadah after its discovery by a Bosnian librarian. Tiny clues found in the book—an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals, a white hair—lead Hanna to experts around Europe who can unlock the story they tell about the book's travels. As she uncovers the mystery of where the haggadah has been hiding all these years, figures from the book's turbulent past tell their stories: a Jewish girl in the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance, a doctor sparring with Vienna's chief Inquisitor, a scribe defying Torquemada's anti-Semitic fervor, and a Muslim slave painting the rituals of the Jew who saved her life.
Hanna is too self-consciously confessional and aggressively provincial to seem like anything other than a literary construct. But Brooks is on much surer ground in the historical sections, which pulse with rich details and seem more deeply felt even when they succumb to soap-opera overloads of conflict and coincidence. Her theme—interfaith cooperation against overwhelming prejudice—provides moving moments in every flashback, and the final plot twists give a true sense of the real-life haggadah's transcendent significance, as illuminated by her sympathetic imagination.