The Aus­tralian- born for­mer for­eign correspondent and now Pulitzer prize- win­ning nov­el­ist cel­e­brates an era of tol­er­ance in her his­tor­i­cal fiction, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

GERAL­DINE Brooks hung up her press pass a while back, but the for­eign cor­re­spon­dent­turned- nov­el­ist re­tains a jour­nal­ist’s knack for blend­ing in. Ex­hibit No 1: her de­ci­sion about where to lunch on Martha’s Vine­yard in late De­cem­ber. One hun­dred me­tres from the At­lantic Ocean, the wind is slic­ing and cold, the sky high, blue and bright, but the ap­ple- cheeked, Volvo- driv­ing, Aus­tralian- born au­thor of March and other books seems to think this is the per­fect place to nosh on a lob­ster roll.

Brooks, 52, set­tles in on a bench over­look­ing clay cliffs and be­gins eat­ing her un­wieldy sand­wich with the ru­mi­na­tive si­lence that be­falls New Eng­lan­ders when­ever they con­tem­plate na­ture’s awe­some cold shoul­der. ‘‘ Th­ese are the days the tourists miss,’’ shouts out a lo­cal walk­ing down to­ward the wa­ter. Brooks agrees the joke is on those out­siders. Later, in the car with her three dogs, driv­ing back to the large, white Greek re­vival house she shares with writer Tony Hor­witz, Brooks ad­mits she doesn’t fool the true­blue lo­cals. ‘‘ Some of them would say I have blown ashore re­cently.’’

For the past sev­eral years Brooks has been do­ing her best to re­verse that im­pres­sion. She has been buy­ing her lamb from a fam­ily that has raised the an­i­mals for sev­eral hun­dred years. Win­ning a Pulitzer Prize for her novel about the fa­ther of the fam­ily in Louisa Al­cott’s US Civil War- era clas­sic Lit­tle Women — doesn’t hurt ei­ther on this is­land.

Pulitzer- win­ning his­to­rian David McCul­lough lives just one town away. And a few steps down the road is the home of nov­el­ist William Sty­ron, who, like Brooks, won a Pulitzer for a po­tent med­i­ta­tion on civil war- era his­tory ( The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner ).

Brooks’s much an­tic­i­pated new novel Peo­ple of the Book might just en­no­ble the is­land with one more Pulitzer. It retells the story of what hap­pened to the Sara­jevo Hag­gadah — an il­lu­mi­nated 14th- cen­tury book used dur­ing Passover Seder din­ner to tell of the Jews’ ex­o­dus from Egypt — which dis­ap­peared from the city’s li­brary dur­ing the 1992- 96 siege.

Brooks fol­lows it back through time, through close calls with Nazis and other oc­cu­piers, through all the hands that pro­tected it and used it, all the way to its creators, who broke Jewish law in cre­at­ing some­thing so floridly dec­o­rated.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, in a near present- day thread, Brooks tells the story of Hanna, a brisk, cool, Aus­tralian book con­ser­va­tor, who is called to Sara­jevo in 1996 and charged with bring­ing the dam­aged codex back to life. Bit by bit Hanna stum­bles on clues about the book’s true ori­gin.

Wo­ven to­gether, th­ese two strands make for a kind of lit­er­ary Da Vinci Code , a book less about the oc­cult mys­ter­ies of faith than the power books have to bind peo­ple to­gether.

‘‘ Let’s cut to the chase, which Geral­dine Brooks cer­tainly does — re­peat­edly — in her in­tense, grip­ping new novel,’’ wrote a critic in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle on the book’s pub­li­ca­tion in the US. ‘‘ Peo­ple of the Book is a tour de force that de­liv­ers a re­ver­ber­at­ing les­son gleaned from his­tory.’’

‘‘ It seems like we have to learn over and over again,’’ Brooks says when asked what that les­son is, ‘‘ that our so­ci­eties are at our best and strong­est when they do ap­pre­ci­ate dif­fer­ence.’’ Brooks learned this les­son first- hand. As a re­porter for The Wall Street Jour­nal , she be­came some­thing of a fire­fighter sent into war and famine zones from So­ma­lia to Iraq, of­ten with Hor­witz re­port­ing along­side her, and watched so­ci­eties suf­fer by not ob­serv­ing this les­son.

But she also saw peo­ple band­ing to­gether. ‘‘ I saw peo­ple be­hav­ing with the most in­cred­i­ble self­less­ness and gen­eros­ity and brav­ery, as well as di­a­bol­i­cal cru­elty.’’ Af­ter 9/ 11, how­ever, Brooks found cir­cum­stances for op­ti­mism had shrunk.

‘‘ I left just in time, though,’’ she adds, ‘‘ be­cause it got so much nas­tier. I couldn’t be­lieve what hap­pened to Danny Pearl,’’ she says, re­fer­ring to the Wall Street Jour­nal jour­nal­ist killed in Pak­istan on a rou­tine re­port­ing trip.

‘‘ That’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent now. When the wo­man who has my job now was cov­er­ing the early parts of this war in Iraq, she wrote the most poignant memo about how she wasn’t work­ing as a jour­nal­ist: she spent so much time try­ing to keep peo­ple safe, she felt like the CEO of a se­cu­rity firm.’’

It was to­wards the end of this pe­riod that she crossed paths with the Sara­jevo Hag­gadah, as a re­porter. ‘‘ I was cov­er­ing the UN,’’ she ex­plains, sit­ting at a large round ta­ble in the kitchen at the back of her house, a mil­lion miles away from any war zone. The city’s li­brary had burned and the Hag­gadah was miss­ing. ‘‘ There were all kinds of ru­mours: that it had been sold and the money used to buy arms, or the Is­raelis had sent a com­mando team in to res­cue it. ‘‘ And then it was dis­closed it had been res­cued by a Mus­lim li­brar­ian who had gone in dur­ing the first days of

the war to try and do what he could to save some of the things in the col­lec­tion that he thought would just be de­stroyed if the Serbs man­aged to take the build­ing. He had taken it to the bank and put it in a safe de­posit box.’’

That’s where the Hag­gadah was af­ter the war, when Brooks went and was al­lowed to sit in on the con­ser­va­tion of the book. ‘‘ It gave me a great in­sight into how a con­ser­va­tor ac­tu­ally works,’’ Brooks says, ‘‘ and her tools and her train­ing.’’

Then she learned the book had been res­cued in sim­i­lar fash­ion from the Nazis in World War II, and she re­alised there was a novel there. Brooks went back to Sara­jevo, where she learned by chance ‘‘ that the widow of the li­brar­ian who had saved the book from the Nazis’’ about 50 years ear­lier was still alive.

Brooks be­gan Peo­ple of the Book , but be­came stuck in World War II: ‘‘ How do you write about Nazis with­out us­ing cliches?’’ she asks.

She was res­cued by prox­im­ity. Brooks was liv­ing in Vir­ginia and ‘‘ the idea for March just flew in the win­dow, gift- wrapped one day’’, she says, adding: ‘‘ I also had a res­i­dent civil war ex­pert’’ in Hor­witz, who wrote Con­fed­er­ates in the At­tic about the way the me­mory of the war be­tween the states lives on in the mod­ern south. March poured out in two years.

Brooks even­tu­ally pulled Peo­ple of the Book out of the drawer, and it was much clearer how to pro­ceed and what to re­search. In the course of writ­ing the book, Brooks jour­neyed to Spain and Aus­tria. One scene takes place in a Venice ghetto, so Brooks had to find out what Vene­tian Jews ate in the 17th cen­tury. ‘‘ I had an ex­cuse to go to Venice, too’’, she adds, ‘‘ which was as­tound­ing.’’

But the book was more than an ex­cuse for sleuthing and trav­el­ling. Like Brooks’s ear­lier non­fic­tion work The Nine Parts of De­sire, a glimpse of the lives of Mus­lim women, it was a chance to see places where cul­tures that clash to­day once worked to­gether. ‘‘ What at­tracted me to the story was that the Hag­gadah was cre­ated at a time when peo­ple man­aged to, if not love each other, at least live side by side, learn from each other and en­rich each other’s cul­tures.’’

In many ways, Brooks is the per­fect per­son to tell such a story. As she de­scribed in her first book, For­eign Cor­re­spon­dence , a mem­oir of grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban Syd­ney, she was drawn to hu­man dra­mas re­gard­less of where they oc­curred.

‘‘ My games were never of here,’’ she wrote of her­self as a child and her habit of find­ing pen­pals in other parts of the world, from Is­rael to Amer­ica, ‘‘ al­ways of else­where.’’

She even­tu­ally con­verted to Ju­daism but is a non- be­liever to­day. ‘‘ I guess I would say I am an ob­ser­vant athe­ist,’’ she jokes. ‘‘ I love mass and scrip­tural mu­sic, and churches and cathe­drals.’’

Her Amer­i­can fa­ther — a news­pa­per em­ployee be­fore her — was also a far- rang­ing man. Born Bob Cut­ter, he changed his name to Lawrie Brooks when he still had dreams of be­com­ing a pop­u­lar band singer.

He set­tled in Syd­ney, gave up singing at age 54, and came to love his adopted coun­try fiercely. ‘‘ I wish I had been born here,’’ Brooks re­mem­bers him say­ing.

Al­though Brooks is fond of where she lives and has learned her fa­ther had roots in Mas­sachusetts that went back to the 1630s, she re­tains a fond­ness for Aus­tralia that is be­yond nos­tal­gic.

‘‘ I grew up at a time when Aus­tralia was in in­cred­i­ble parox­ysms of change, which in my opin­ion were vastly for the bet­ter, both in terms of open­ing up mi­gra­tion to peo­ple of dif­fer­ence, rather than the same old, same old, and the open­ing of the arts and find­ing voices among Aus­tralians.’’

As a young wo­man she be­came a re­porter for The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald , cov­er­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal beat when she had never been on so much as a camp­ing trip. In 1982 she won a fel­low­ship at Columbia Univer­sity and went to the US, where she met Hor­witz. They mar­ried in 1984 and even­tu­ally came to Aus­tralia, where she opened The Wall Street Jour­nal ’ s Aus­tralian bureau and cared for her ail­ing fa­ther. Too many close calls on the front line even­tu­ally pushed her out of for­eign cor­re­spon­dence, and now her son’s ed­u­ca­tion has plonked her in Mas­sachusetts.

Her next book, she says, will be set much closer to home and in­volve an­other dip into the past. in the mean­time, how­ever, she is more con­cerned with present- day Amer­ica.

She spent her an­niver­sary wed­ding week­end with Hor­witz ‘‘ tramp­ing the snow in New Hamp­shire’’, get­ting sig­na­tures for pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Barack Obama, in­stead of a ‘‘ get­away to a spa’’. Brooks doesn’t mind. ‘‘ I think he would be great for this coun­try: it would mess with peo­ple’s heads all over the world. I think they would have to re­con­fig­ure what Amer­ica is and undo some of the un­be­liev­able dam­age the cur­rent id­iot has done.’’

Af­ter this she will be on the road ex­plain­ing why the sig­nif­i­cance of the Sara­jevo Hag­gadah. She gives a lit­tle taste of that pitch when she takes me up­stairs to show me two replica ver­sions.

The book is smaller than one would ex­pect and ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful, not un­like the il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts of William Blake. A hush falls over Brooks and then she gives a lit­tle laugh, as if we’re look­ing at a trea­sure. It’s not some­thing she was born to, nor is the de­ity it speaks of her own. But now, in her most heart­en­ing act of to­tal im­mer­sion to date, she’s about to be­come one of its most pow­er­ful ad­vo­cates.

Saved from the Nazis: Geral­dine Brooks at home in Mas­sachusetts, main; the re­stored Sara­jevo Hag­gadah on dis­play in 2002, above

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