December 30, 2008
The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew prayer-book that miraculously survived centuries of warfare and uprisings, has surfaced once again and ancient text conservator Hanna Heath has been tasked with the job of restoring it before it goes on display at the National Museum. Hanna is surprised and delighted when the honor could have gone to any number of experts in text conservation, namely her mentor Werner Heinrich who is considered to be the authority on Hebrew manuscripts. But given the delicate political state of the area in the mid 1990’s, the Bosnian government had reservations about hiring a German, and Hanna being a native Australian, fit perfectly.
As soon as she steps onto the tarmac she’s whisked to the museum by a UN escort and gets to work on the haggadah. This particular haggadah was made famous because of the beautiful illuminations that are unique to a text of this type because it was made at a time when traditional Jewish beliefs prohibited illustrations. During her conservation work, Hanna discovers tiny clues amidst the pages and binding that could shed light not only of the history of the book itself but of the people who made and cared for it through the generations.
What follows are the stories that explain these small treasures – an insect wing, a wine stain, salt, and a white hair – told by people of various religions, nationalities, and time periods that all played a part in the haggadah’s history. These tales are interwoven with chapters of Hanna as she solicits the help of friends and colleagues to delve deeper into the mysteries of the book. Along the way she’s distracted by a brief affair with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the museum – who risked his life to save the book – and his dying son, drama with her disapproving neurosurgeon mother (who dubs Hanna’s chosen profession as “Kindergarten work”), and the identity of the father she never knew.
After wrapping up her research and concluding her report, Hanna returns to Sarajevo for the opening of the haggadah’s brand new exhibit only to discover to her horror that the vellum used for the book’s pages doesn’t match that of the one she studied. She tries to convince Ozren that the book is a forgery and all her confidence is shattered when he doesn’t believe her. Consumed with self-doubt about her life’s work, she swears off ancient texts and returns to Australia to study Aborigine cave paintings. But was she really wrong about the haggadah or had it been found only to be lost again?
People of the Book was an excellent read. The artifacts that Hanna found brought the people involved with the book to life for me and illuminated the tragedies and struggles of so many years of religious persecution and conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The historical aspect alone was wonderful, but I also enjoyed the 20th century chapters with Hanna, who is a great character. I loved her personality, use of Aussie idioms, and how she bickered with her impossible mother.
The whole book was gripping and there weren’t any parts that I felt were slow or boring, even though I was introduced to a new character quite often. Some of the scenes were so intense my heart was pounding as I read them (the torture scene in the salt chapter quickly comes to mind). This was my first try at a Geraldine Brooks novel and I was definitely impressed enough to check out her other books. If you’re interested in history you should give it a try!