This work of fiction by Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks, was based on the true story of the Hebrew Codex know as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This beautifully illustrated 15th century book, one of the earliest Jewish volumes with such illustrations, had been miraculously saved numerous times. The book had come to light in 1894 and was considered mysterious because it was illustrated during the time that Jews considered figurative art to be a violation of the commandments. During WWII the book was saved from the Nazis by a Muslim. In 1992 at the onset of the war in Bosnia, the book was heroically saved again, this time by a Muslim named Ozren Karamar. He put it in a safe deposit box in the vault of the central bank. Then in 1996 Hanna Heath, an Australian conservator of medieval manuscripts, is hired to inspect and document the book, getting it ready for an exhibition. The book was to be a shrine of Sarajevo multi-ethnic heritage.
When Hanna began her meticulous work, several articles are found in the book’s binding: part of a butterfly wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a white hair. These items were the clues Hanna used to uncover some of the mysteries of the book’s past. The story goes backwards in time, 1940 to 1480, to Venice, Tarragona and Seville with each article Hanna found being chapters devoted to the history of that item and how they came to be in the book. In between Hanna has her own personal dramas going on.
Brooks deftly sets the scene at the National Museum where Hanna and others are waiting for the book to arrive. There is a definite sense of impatience and suspense. This was an incredible story of a magnificent document. The history of how and when the book was made was of great interest to me as the story drew me in immediately. Brooks has obviously deeply researched the subject weaving it into a vastly entertaining historical tale. I did find my ignorance of the Jewish faith and some of the history made this a slower read for me although it was definitely a very engaging saga of the past and how it connected to the present with the amazing journey of the Haggadah.
The characters, for the most part, were multi dimensional, well fleshed out ones. The chapters about Hanna and her present day life were not quite as interesting as the historical chapters. I wish the historical chapters had been a little longer as the different plotlines were excellent. There were times I found myself almost holding my breath to see what happened next. Brooks has a very fluid style and her descriptions made the images and the history really come to life. Stories of war, family relationships and basic survival made for an intriguing tale.
At the beginning, there is an excellent map of the global journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah. At the end is an interesting afterword, a conversation with the author and then questions for discussion. When a book makes me want to read more about the subject and other related matters long after the last page is read, then I think that is a sign of a very good book. All in all, an extremely enjoyable read. Highly recommended 4*