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Posts Tagged ‘M.L. Stedman’

The other book I checked out before the holidays because I’d meant to read it for some time is People of the Book. I really enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and Nichole Bernier recommended People of the Book last fall when she read from The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. at Gibson’s. Since I loved two other books Nichole recommended that night (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans), I figured I’d like this one too.

And I did, even though it took me awhile to read it between holiday visits, parties, and events and post-holiday chores and errands. Like Caleb’s Crossing, I found People of the Book‘s historical details evocative and fascinating, and also as in that book, I liked Geraldine Brooks’ strong female protagonist, this time an Australian book conservator named Hannah Heath. Brooks takes readers back in time through several periods as Hannah inspects, studies, and prepares for exhibit the rare illuminated manuscript, recounting Jewish history through the Exodus, known as The Sarajevo Haggadah.

When the book opens, it’s 1996, the Bosnian war has just ended, and Hannah begins her work. A few traces people have left behind — a wine stain, an inquisitor’s signature, a cat hair, a bit of salt, an insect’s wing, and the space where clasps once held the binding closed — are the jumping off points for the haggadah’s story. Each character from each place and time was interesting, and Brooks brought them all to life in places she made vivid. Maps with dates on the end papers show readers “The Global Journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah” so you can follow it as you read or preview what’s coming.

People of the Book is in part the stories of people in various centuries who carry out Brooks’ fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It’s also a novel about a young woman seeking her own place in the world. Hannah’s mother, a famous neurosurgeon, disdains her work, at one point telling her she is nothing but a “tradeswoman” despite the fact that Hannah’s expertise and training sets her apart as one of the best conservators in the world. In the course of the book Hannah learns her father’s identity and meets an extended family she didn’t know she had.  It’s a mystery too, with the clues Hannah tracks about the haggadah’s history and a chapter about the manuscript’s whereabouts. And it’s a lovely recounting of the importance of art and books and the resilience of the human spirit throughout history.

It was also a terrific read in the evenings as a busy year drew to a close and the new one began. Brooks leaves readers feeling hopeful that the long story of human cooperation, tolerance, and friendship is at least as strong as its opposite.

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When Nichole Bernier visited Gibson’s Bookstore in September, I asked what she’s been reading. She raved about a novel that my friend Sandy at Gibson’s also recommended highly: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I love a book that moves me. And a story that makes me want to stay up just a little longer to find out what happens. This novel is both.

I am going to tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil the story. Here’s what I can tell you: Tom is a WWI veteran, haunted by the war and by memories of his lonely childhood and the loss of his mother. Tom’s also in the Commonwealth Lighthouse service, and he arrives in a small town, Partageuse, at the southwestern tip of Australia to take up his new post on a small island off the coast, Janus Rock, as keeper. In Partageuse he meets Isabel.

They have  a brief courtship, he starts his work on Janus, and they correspond when they can (a boat only comes every few months to resupply Janus Rock). They marry. Isabel has two miscarriages and a stillborn. And then one day the tide washes up a boat on Janus. On board? A baby, perfectly healthy. And a dead man. Boat, body, baby. What would you do?

And that is what the rest of this novel is about, what Tom and Isabel do, how it impacts their lives and everyone else’s. It’s an incredibly thought provoking book — this is perfect for a book club, because Stedman does an excellent job of making all the possibilities plausible and in evoking great empathy for all the characters. She also makes them whole — no one dimensional villains or heroes here.

Writing wise it’s also a beautiful book. Everything is vivid, from Tom’s dreadful childhood home to the lighthouse and everything in between. Stedman writes with rich detail, but as my Grandmother used to say, with no extra words. Stedman makes Tom’s life perfectly clear even to someone like me who knew exactly nothing about how a nineteenth century lighthouse works. Every detail she includes does its job, with no flowery extras.

Here’s an example:  “Outside, the metal gallery circled the tower, and a perilous ladder arched against the dome, up to the thin catwalk just below the weather vane that swung in the wind.” Or this: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Or a scene where a young man working in the town bakery helps a young lady with her shawl,”draping it around her in one fluid movement.”

I could go on but you should read this novel for yourself. Once you do you’ll want to talk about it with someone. Let me know what you think!

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