Geraldine, Geraldine. Oh, where do I start with this book? I’ll start by saying that I was never a fan of Year of Wonders, so I was [in my opinion, quite understandably] apprehensive about reading this one. I had, however, heard positive reviews so I decided to give it ago.
I have a sort of ‘three tick’ system (I don’t deliberately go through it when reading or choosing a book, but this is invariably what happens) – if the cover is good, it gets one tick. If it’s had good reviews and/OR I’m a fan of the author’s previous books, it gets another tick. If the book itself is good, it gets a third tick. Eighty percent of the books I read are two-tick books. And it’s quite surprising how many books deserve only one tick – and not because the book is fabulous with a hideous cover. Going through my tick system, I can see that I’m being overly critical – People of the Book is a two-tick book. Yes, it received good reviews and it had a good cover: the delicious cover saved it. The disconcerting part is that it missed out on the most important tick of all.
I’ve got nothing against the plot. It’s a fabulous plot; and I think for the size and scale of it, she structured it quite well. Yet there was something missing. There was something dry and artificial about the movement of the whole thing. Some books, with quite mundane plots, will flow fabulously – the characters will push the narrative along nicely. People of the Book had all the aspects of an excellent novel; Brooks could so easily have created a beautiful piece of writing pulsing with emotion and human nature and breathing characters from the story of the Haggadah – but something fell short here. It was like a production of Shakespeare with plastic mannequins. I felt that the plot and the actual writing told two different stories. It seemed that through the plot, Brooks was trying to say that once we are stripped of ethnicity, age, sex etc, we’re all equal. Despite the labels we have created for each other, we can oercome such barriers and be united (in this case, towards the presevation of the Haggadah). That’s all very good; it’s a good message. But the writing itself didn’t convey this so much.
Perhaps it was the awkwardness of protagonist, Hannah, that seeped into the atmosphere of the whole novel. She’s quite an odd character; eccentric and anti-social almost, but not at all likeable. Some characters can be queer, or even plain horrible, but still be likeable – say, for instance, Javert from Les Miserables. He’s clearly not a ‘nice guy’, but he’s fascinating as a character; I quite like him. There’s another thing I don’t understand. Hannah is quite clearly a MacGuffin; a plot device placed [awkwardly] into the novel, to tie all the historical events together. Why, Geraldine? Just like de Kretser (The Lost Dog), you have failed miserably.
Some might argue that it would have been impossible to cram so much history and life into one book, and that Brooks did the best that was possible for such a large plot, but I believe eloquence and good characterisation and capturing human nature/emotion is achievable, regardless of word limit. Brevity should not be an impediment to a writer (take Hemingway, for instance). I was left feeling somewhat bemused at the end of each historical segment – I would find myself reluctantly being wrenched away from those fascinating historical insights, back to Hannah Heath and her ghastly relationship with her mother.
Maybe it’s not a matter of something missing. Maybe Geraldine Brooks attempted too much? If she had focused on even one part of the Haggadah’s history, I reckon it would have been enough. For instance, I really loved the section detailing the the actual creation of the book – I think this section came last (it’s all sort of hazy in my mind because it was a while ago). The story of the woman who so lovingly illustrated the Haggadah; that story on its own would have been a remarkable book.
All in all, it was an enjoyable read, but I feel that it’s the type of book I’ll read once and forget about (that’s evident already – I even forgot to mention it on my blog). Geraldine Brooks is a great writer – she’s not bad by any means – it’s just that there’s no special oomph factor that separates her from the multitudes of other good writers. After I finish a three tick book, I’ll usually soak in its ambience for a while; I find myself thinking over parts of the plot, or mulling over certain characters. This? It didn’t leave much of an impression. Logically, I should have steered away from it. People were exuberant about Year of Wonders, and lavishly praised it, so if this one had only received ‘good’ reviews, I should have known I’d be disappointed.