A cursory description of Geraldine Brooks's "People of the Book" (Viking, 384 pages, $25.95) might make the novel sound like a distaff, Jewish version of "The Da Vinci Code." That's because Ms. Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her last novel, "March" (2005), has now produced a historical mystery starring a strong-willed heroine determined to ferret out the truth about a valuable medieval Hebrew manuscript nearly lost and then found again in war-torn Bosnia.
In reality, "People of the Book" is of much more substance than Dan Brown's overwrought, silly, and ultimately distasteful thriller could ever hope to be — yet Ms. Brooks's work is just as entertaining. She has accomplished something remarkable, fashioning a story that is compelling and eminently readable, even as she maintains high intentions and an earnest purpose.
As it follows the imagined journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated prayer book containing the order of the Passover Seder, "People of the Book" says much about the science of book preservation, about the nature of art and beauty, and about the capacity for barbarism in individuals who are sure they have a monopoly on truth. Tracing the past of this beautiful relic and through it the progress of Jews in Europe, Ms. Brooks skips around from the 14th century to the present day, with stops in Spain, Venice, Vienna, and the Australian Outback. She throws in a romance, a sudden inheritance, and a skillful forgery, yet through it all, the novel retains its essential seriousness. Here, history is more than a way to create rollicking plot points or sell books — Ms. Brooks is delicately but inventively pleading for tolerance.
We're first introduced to the heroine, Australian-born Hanna Heath, a scholar of ancient manuscripts, in Sarajevo in 1996. Hanna has been called in by the United Nations to inspect the condition of the Haggadah, which had gone missing four years previously from the city museum's library during Serbian shelling, but has now been recovered. "A famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind," the Haggadah had caused a sensation when it emerged in Sarajevo in 1894; "its pages of painted miniatures had caused art history texts to be rewritten."
Once Hanna is able to get a close look at the book, she discovers some oddities about it that set her on the trail of its true origins. The saga of the Haggadah through history is unveiled through a series of portraits of people who touched it, going backward in time. And Hanna's own story is told in intervening chapters. Because the novel lacks the traditional detective story structure — one clue does not lead inevitably to the next — the reader is pushed off balance, encouraged to ponder wider themes instead of mere facts on the ground. What is more, the reader ends up knowing more than Hanna ever does about the Haggadah, which is exhilarating and satisfying.
At each stop along the book's journey, from its birthplace in Spain through Italy, Austria, and Nazi-occupied Sarajevo, Ms. Brooks skillfully evokes a distinct historical atmosphere, and creates fascinating characters, including the unlikely original artist. Only when Hanna finds out the truth about her own background does one begin to worry that the author is straining credulity and overstuffing her novel with Hollywood-ready bells and whistles. A final twist in the Haggadah's fate also seems unnecessary and unrestrained — but both it and the discoveries about Hanna serve the author's greater aim: exploring the intertwined history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Europe. It's a past marred by violence, most recently in Bosnia, but it has also been characterized by periods of peaceful coexistence, as in pre-Inquisition Spain.
"People of the Book" is also intensely personal. Ms. Brooks was in Bosnia in the 1990s, covering the war for the Wall Street Journal, and first heard about the Sarajevo Haggadah at a time when the "city's fire-gutted library reeked of burning pages after the barrage of Serbian phosphorous shells," as she writes in the novel's afterword. Journalists and scholars speculated over what had become of this "priceless jewel," only to learn later that a Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovic, had rescued it during the shelling and secreted it away in a bank vault.
Ms. Brooks uses Imamovic's story and other facts about the Haggadah to build her fictional history, but so much is not known about the book that she has plenty of leeway to create the portraits that make the novel so engaging. Notable among these "people of the book" is a young Jewish woman, Lola, living in 1940 in Sarajevo. The tragedy of what happens to her, her family, and her friends under the Nazi occupation is heartrending. Ms. Brooks's depiction of Herr Doktor Franz Hirshfeldt, a medical man in hedonistic fin de siecle Vienna, is not as affecting, but still makes for an interesting look at a vanished world. As the author ventures into medieval times, the sense of authenticity wanes (the characters' attitudes are rather modern, as when a scribe's daughter strikes out on her own with a baby she hasn't given birth to), but one is nonetheless hard-pressed to stop reading.
There's nothing didactic or forced about "People of the Book." Because Ms. Brooks has made the story so approachable, her message goes down easily. One of Hanna's friends sums it up this way:
Well from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition. Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists ... same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that.
Even in a pluralistic society such as our own, "People of the Book" has a compelling resonance. Ms. Brooks's novel is a commendable addition to the shelf of books cautioning that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it, but it's also a fun, fictional creation that will get people reading and thinking.
Ms. McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.