The joy of text
In a book about a book, novelist Geraldine Brooks unites her fascinations with the present and the past.
Thu Jan 3 2008
Photograph: Randi Baird
Sometimes a writer’s work appears so seamless, so effortless, that it becomes a delightful surprise to discover that behind the scenes there remains a great deal of struggle and sweat. On the phone from her Martha’s Vineyard home—between pauses to shush a trio of dogs alarmed to see their couches being carted off to an upholsterer—Geraldine Brooks breezily recounts the challenges she faced while writing her latest novel, People of the Book. It was so difficult, she says, that she set it aside years ago to write her Civil War novel, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.
It’s easy to see how the ambitious scope of People of the Book—a multilayered novel that shifts across centuries and continents—could frustrate even a seasoned writer. It tells the story of Australian rare-book specialist Hanna Heath, who has been hired to trace the history of an ornately illustrated Haggadah that originated in 15th-century Spain and recently surfaced in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. As Hanna grows more obsessed with the Hebrew manuscript, her own contemporary love story becomes inflected by the book’s adventure-packed past, in which people try to save it from book-burning religious fanatics and anti-Semites in 1609 Venice, fin de siècle Vienna and Nazi-era Europe.
But the Australian-born Brooks, 52, wasn’t daunted by her project’s increasingly intricate latticework plot. Mostly, she got snagged on her initial notion that Hanna should be Bosnian. “I love the Bosnian intellect, and they have this wonderful, mordant wit,” Brooks says. “But I wasn’t getting it right.”
It wasn’t until she finished March and returned to People that she had a revelation: She could make Hanna Australian. As research for the character, Brooks had been exchanging e-mails with Narayan Khandekar, the chief book conservator at Harvard. “When we finally met in person,” she says, “he opened his mouth and I discovered he was a bloke from Melbourne.” Having an Australian called to work on the Haggadah suddenly seemed plausible, and Hanna came into focus; her Aussie voice was one that Brooks could express with confidence.
People of the Book features another first for Brooks as a novelist: It has a modern setting. As a journalist, she has experienced and written about being on the front lines of real human drama; she covered the Bosnian War and the first Persian Gulf crisis for The Wall Street Journal. But as a novelist, she’s been more comfortable taking liberties with the past, setting March in Civil War–era America and Year of Wonders in plague-ridden 17th-century Derbyshire. “Because I wrote so long for newspapers, I feel you should stick to the truth if you have access to it,” she says. “But I’m intrigued by stories set in the past where you can’t know the details and have to invent them.”
In People of the Book Brooks manages to find a compelling balance between her journalistic interests in the present and her novelistic penchant for the past. As Hanna tracks the Haggadah’s history through marginal notations—and by analyzing every insect wing and hair lodged between the pages—the narrative shifts back in time to portray the people who came in contact with the manuscript, and who risked their lives to protect it for five centuries. One of the more riveting stories follows a Muslim librarian in Sarajevo who saved the relic from the Nazis.
A book about a book, Brooks’s new novel is a mash note to bibliophiles (its dedication: “For the librarians”), but it’s also a rollicking page-turner. Brooks says she sharpened her storytelling skills while reading to her young son. “I love children’s literature because there is so much more plot, and when I looked at my older work, I saw the stories were beautifully crafted—but there was no story,” the author says. “Philip Pullman said something great when he accepted the Carnegie Medal: ‘The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.’ ”
In People of the Book, Brooks tosses out the tongs, grabs onto her plot and doesn’t let go. She plans to continue developing her storytelling gifts with another novel, though she’s not going to start writing until she gets back from a three-month international reading tour. In the meantime, Brooks plans to return to the front lines of contemporary history: She’s spending December canvassing New England on behalf of Barack Obama.
People of the Book (Viking, $25.95) is out now. Brooks reads Wed 9.