Geraldine Brooks

 

People of the Book

 

Clever enough idea competently realised.

 

The idea isn’t the hard bit – even though it’s a cool one. But if you told 100 writers they had to write a book around an expert in art restoration, jumping chronology with different forensic clues linking the satisfying present story to discrete episodes from an increasingly distant past, you’d get some interesting responses, but I think Brooks’ spin would be among the front runners. The writing is professional, the pacing and structure well executed.

 

In line with her pun title, a Semitic theme runs alongside the literary one – and the stories are generally dark, picking up on centuries of persecution. I wonder if that lens is perhaps distorted these days – we can only see Jewish history through post-holocaust eyes, and in reality the chances are that dipping into random lives would produce as many pedestrian and even fortunate portraits as tragic ones. Or maybe that’s completely wrong: it took something as shocking as the holocaust to open people’s eyes to what’s been pervasive for centuries. Dunno.

 

I like that Brooks works hard to show intelligence, respectability, nuance, character in her historical portraits – dumb, but recently I’ve bumped a bit into, ‘Weren’t they all stupid back then’ nonsense. That being said, there’s the danger that in making modern audiences non-dismissive, she may have made some characters too modern. I’ve seen this in, say, Pat Barker and Ben Elton, where alternate voices – which definitely existed at the time – are seen as mainstream. I’m a cracked record with this, but one of the ways that Patrick O’Brian excels in the historical fiction genre is that his likable, respectable heroes have values consistent with their context that would be offensive to many modern readers, including O’Brian. But they are still likable and respectable. Brooks’ heroes, however, tend to have surprisingly modern values about things like race, sexuality and patriarchy.

 

She effectively and deliberately foregrounds powerful women, but it reflects more poorly on society than her that to similarly foreground powerful men would go largely unnoticed. I didn’t really chime with the main character – I found her too cold and humourless – and towards the end embarrassingly PC, particularly in the Australian context talking like a flamin’ 19th century outback Aussie caricature (ya bloomin’ drongo), which made no sense given her urban contemporary background. And definitely, as with so many book-club texts like this one, the book fits neatly into the ‘well written novels that weren’t written for me’ box.

 

January 2016