December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Land of PHEW

By |2018-03-21T18:34:17+01:00October 5th, 2008|"Scriptorium"|
Geraldine Brooks. Photo by Jerry Bauer.

noozing over tired dialogue and characters, some reviewers dump “People of the Book” (“People of the Book,” Geraldine Brooks, Fourth Estate, 2008). Not this column. Why shoot down a novel that doesn’t fly?

And there is an up side. Namely: “People” is Alpha introduction to Scriptorium’s own book category: PHEW (Post Historical-Era Works).

Case you’re wondering, that Post H-Era is today. The NOW gen.

What is it that the NOWs say? Forget the past; that’s all history now. H. viewed as: intriguing treasure trove of long-ago, quaint details. Disconnected from intrusive beasties like significant pattern or referent timeline. Just like “People.”

For despite Brooks’ two previous, document-grounded “historical fictions,” (Pulitzer to the second, “March”) her third foray respects capital-H History to the point of avoiding it almost entirely. All is pseudo. Watch how this work enters the funhouse Land of Phew.

Step one:

Author “inspired” by the mysterious aura surrounding an ancient Hebrew codex-the recently rediscovered Sarajevo Haggadah.

Step two:

Author research shows S. Haggadah data thin on the ground. Max info available: 14th century Hebrew Passover book produced in the brief and golden age of “convivencia” Spain; famed for its illustrations, as splendid as unusual in Jewish religious texts; by 15th C, book lost; resurfaces end of 19th C when sold to Sarajevo Museum; during Nazi-Bosnian invasion book hidden away by Muslim Museum Director; third millennium, book returns to the Museum.

Step three:

Brooks decides these blank facts leapfrog centuries, and lack connective tissue. There’s no espalier for a narrative build.

Step four:

Brooks jettisons History and whole cloth invents…

mainstory: Fictional narrator, Australian book-conservator Hanna Heath, effects technical research on this antique code. Not too enthralling. Unless details of ancient papyrus production really light your fire. So the author introduces…

five clues (never) found in this Haggadah (an insect wing; a redly stained page). Around each she develops …

five complex period tales, covering varied lands, races, religions, and eras. With picturesque casts: syphilitic Viennese bookbinder; alcoholic Venetian Inquisitor. Brooks is soon devoting more pages to these interludes than to her Aussie protagonist. Perhaps she finds them more interesting.

Step five:

Brooks loses her plotline. Here’s an oddly disjointed work. No interaction between Hanna’s main-story and the clue back-stories. We readers get pretty fables. Hanna only learns century and geographic area. About any alcoholic Inquisitor, our protagonist is out in the Sarajevo cold.

Step six:

Lacking coherent novel, Brooks tries to keep readers awake with market-reach riffs, in the mainstory or its five subs.

Topics: Jewish rites and traditions; Muslims, Jews and Christians seen as cousins under the skin; Australian continent as exotic back-setting; attractive antique-book detective pulls global research. And — did you guess? — has a tortured romance with Muslim Museum Director.

Then drop in the pot: heroine’s lifelong identity conflict — unrelated to book investigation but amply shown in sub-sub episodes with superbitch, top surgeon, domineering and Single Mom. Who refuses to reveal the (dead, artistic, hugely famous) biological father’s identity. Frankly, we readers have no idea what the surgeon lady/heroine conflict is doing in this “historical panorama.”

And Brooks forgets to tell us.

Wow. People certainly offers a dollop of appeal to every taste and interest. And satisfaction to none. Much glitter gabble about the long-ago; nothing of the actual, mass dramas that have signaled our common path.

Memo to the reader: in real History the phrase “people of the Book” refers to the Jewish people, their homage to their codes. Whereas Brooks’ “people” are multi-racial and imaginary. Quirky, entertaining figures who might have handled the S. Haggadah during its mysterious centuries. Might — if pigs can fly. This author’s blithe distortion of an age-old attribution of the Jewish people is, at best, disturbing.

But that’s what happens when hoary old History takes back seat to entertainment.

Lots of “fictionalized histories” popping off the presses these days. When you meet them at your local bookseller and read the jacket blurbs you’ll find PHEW a useful acronym. Say it aloud. Hear its lower-case cousin wheezing? Doesn’t it seem to say: gettin’ tired of this nonsense.

Because despite our shared third millennium need to formaldehyde cultural dinosaurs, History (timelines and such) are not on our hit list. Partly because without them we have a rough time defining a dinosaur. Partly because the old folks didn’t get it so very wrong when they insisted, “One thing follows another. Like the night the day.”

That seems simplistic. But it’s hard to beat. And Brooks’ pseudo-history rummage sale doesn’t knock it down at all. PHEW.

About the Author:

Former Rabelais scholar Patricia Fogarty honed her skills in the New York City publishing world. She lives in Rome and has been the magazine's book columnist for a decade.