In preparation for Iceland Writers Retreat, I am reading books by each of the featured authors. It feels a little weird to review authors who are about to become my teachers, but it’s easier to read critically when I know I have to report on it afterwards. I had already read Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders; I enjoyed it as a reader, and as a writer I enjoyed trying to understand her choices: writing about survival instead of adventure, building an overtly feminist story within a culture that was anything but. My library holds on the remaining authors hadn’t come in yet, so I started her People of the Book. By the second page, her Sam Spade of a protagonist had grabbed me by the throat, and she didn’t let go until days after I finished reading.
People of the Book didn’t have to be great to impress me; it has many of my favorite novel ingredients. I’m a sucker for books about books, and the high/low combination of fine art conservation and crusty Aussie attitude satisfies like fresh macaroni with a homemade four-cheese sauce. With all the suspense and drama of the DaVinci Code and all the class and intelligence of the Red Violin, People of the Book managed to be so much more than either mystery or history.
I have only read two of Brooks’ novels, but her themes are already familiar to me: women overcoming impossible odds, the refined and intellectual side of Muslim culture, the extremes of transcendence and debasement of which average humans (even individual humans) are capable under the right circumstances. It’s not that I’m particularly observant; Brooks just doesn’t hide her interests under artifice. She knows that when your point is sharp enough it will stick when you hit people with it:
…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.
But Brooks doesn’t sacrifice story for moral, and just because she’s writing fiction doesn’t mean she abandons research. What really impressed me was that she not only painstakingly researched the points that are critical to the story – how censorship worked during the Inquisition, or what paintbrushes were made of in Persia in the 14th century – but even incidental details are exquisitely accurate. In an almost careless aside in this 2008 novel, she accurately described how PCR was performed in genetics labs in 1996 (the year I learned the procedure, which is how I knew to be impressed).
In the same way that Brooks hides her moral in plain sight, her protagonist explicitly describes the purpose of People of the Book:
I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as seasoning between the discussion of technical issues. I tried to give a sense of the Convivencia, of poetry parties on summer nights in beautiful formal gardens, of Arabic-speaking Jews mixing freely with Muslim and Christian neighbors. Although I couldn’t know the story of the scribe or the illuminator, I tried to give a sense of each of them by explaining the details of their crafts and what medieval pavilions of the book were like and where such artisans fitted into the social milieu. Then, I wanted to build up a certain tension around the dramatic, terrible reversals of the Inquisition and the expulsion. I wanted to convey fire and shipwreck and fear.
The book in the novel really does exist, and the history of its scribe and its illuminator are lost. Yet Brooks’ novel accomplishes all of the things her protagonist aspires too, and it does something else as well.
When I was a child, my family watched the movie Out of Africa. To this day I remember a scene where Meryl Streep and two handsome men are sitting around a dinner table strewn with empty dishes and half-filled glasses of wine. Streep says something like, “In a tiny flat above a shop in a dark, crooked alley in China, a newborn baby boy let out his first cry.” The scene shifted to show the characters lounging on the floor in front of a crackling fire; obviously hours and hours later. Deep in the night, they finished their story, “The emperor lay dead on the floor of a tiny flat above a shop in a dark, crooked alley in China.”
I was too young to understand the story of Out of Africa when I saw it, but even as a child watching tv past my bedtime, I was haunted by the missing middle of that story. I knew that it had ranged from a dingy hole-in-the-wall apartment to the Forbidden City, passed over mountains and oceans and tied events in the lives of anonymous laundry workers to events in the lives of emperors, influencing the fate of millions in the process. That story became a template for me, a shadow cast on the cave wall, representing all Great Stories. Reading People of the Book, I felt like I was lounging on the floor in front of the fireplace, listening to Meryl Streep recite the missing middle of the Great Story.