Sarajevo <i>Tzimmes</i>

People of the Book By Geraldine Brooks Viking 372 pages; $25.95 Rape! Murder! Pillage! Genocide! Spies! Smugglers! Illicit sex! Hints of lesbianism! Oh, yes, and don't forget boredom. Geraldine Brooks, an Australian novelist and journalist, won the Pulitzer Prize for "March," her 2005 novel imagining the Civil War experiences of the father in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." Good for her. But with "People of the Book," Brooks aimed solely for the best-seller list. Not so good. Lost father found! Unexpected inheritance! Kidnapped infants! Boys who turn out to be girls! Israeli professors who turn out to be ex-commandos! Oh, yes, and don't forget boredom. In a recent on-line interview, Brooks revealed among other things that, raised Catholic but interested in things Jewish, she grew up reading "bad Leon Uris novels." Well, maybe that explains why she's written one herself. Actually, as I drove myself with whips and scorpions through "People of the Book," I kept thinking not of Leon Uris but of those countless James Michener tomes, you know, those heavily researched historical melodramas didactically o'er-leaping the ages and ultimately amounting to nothing so much as television serials on paper. All that and a splash of "The Da Vinci Code" on the side. Mystery! Intrigue! Torture! War! The clash of civilizations! The shame of sexually transmitted diseases! Secrets of the harem! Double-crossing! Cross-dressing! Did I mention boredom? Because it was all so familiar, so formulaic, so exploitative, so been-there-oh-how-I-wish-I-hadn't-done-that. For the record, "People of the Book" is framed by the first-person narrative of Dr. Hanna Heath, an intrepid Australian expert on ancient books who is summoned to war-torn Bosnia in 1996 to inspect the famous Sarajevo Haggada. Her examination reveals such finds as a wine stain, a cat hair, a fragment of butterfly wing and a salt crystal. Each of these discoveries not surprisingly leads to a chapter in the life of the book, working backwards from the Balkans to Vienna to Venice and finally to its point of origin in 15th-century Spain. Every so often - far too often, in fact - this itinerary is interrupted to bring us up to date on Hanna's love life, professional crises and conflicts with her imperious mother. Got that? Of course you have. What might save us from the embarrassment of being caught reading such a potboiler? That it's informative? So what might we learn? That the Inquisition was bad for the Jews? No, that won't do. How about something more specific to Brooks's research, which she makes no effort to conceal: "You look first at the cuticle of the hair. The hair scales on humans are readily identifiable and rather smooth, but on animals they're various - petal shaped, spinous - depending on the species. You make a scale cast to see the pattern more clearly. In the rare case the scales are not definitive, there's always the medulla - the central core of the hair. Cells there are very regular in animals but amorphous in humans. And then there's pigment. Pigment granules in animals are distributed toward the medulla, in human it's toward the cuticle..." Hmm, if it's not the education, maybe the book's virtue is in its felicitous use of language? Can't be, not when we're told, "His face had not softened into jowels." Perhaps the reward is in the dialogue? Well, no, not in the sort of novel in which characters deliver lines like: "Oh, for goodness' sake, Hanna. Can you stop being solipsistic for five minutes?" Sheer credibility? Um, not when a scientist immediately recognizes a line from a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Indeed, my favorite bit of incredibility comes at the ludicrous conclusion of "People of the Book," when the characters have to smuggle the purloined haggada back into the Sarajevo Museum. (Don't ask - please, don't ask.) This feat, one character explains, will not be accomplished "by agents in ninja suits dropping on wires out of air-conditioning ducts." That sort of thing, he assures us, is strictly for the movies. Can't wait for the movie version. Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky writes frequently about books.