This book is a braided narrative alternating between the present day (1996) and the past. Dr. Hanna Heath is an Australian conservator come to Sarajevo to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, a most unusual Haggadah as it has glorious illustrations within. And so this novel explores the story of the book, of its many misfortunes and near escapes to its survival into the present day.
One of the challenges of writing a book of this nature is that each alternate chapter, set in past, concerns different times, different events and a different cast of characters. So the reader is obliged to do some work to keep everything straight. However, author Geraldine Brook’s writing is so wonderful, so descriptive and so threaded-through with emotion that she is able to pull off this rather difficult feat. I also loved her choice to tell the past in REVERSE chronological order, as somehow it made a rather dark novel more uplifting.
We start in 1940-41 when Yugoslav partisans are fighting the Nazis in and around Sarajevo. Serif, a Muslim scholar, (based upon Dervis Korkut,) hides the Haggadah in the one place where no-one will think of looking for it: a mosque in the mountains. It remains hidden there until the end of World War II.
And so we continue, each chapter set in the past, illustrating each physical feature of the Haggadah as Hanna examines it. The poor repair made in 1894, is explained by the actions of a syphilitic bookbinder. The wine stain supposedly occurred in Venice in 1609, when a drunk priest drops some wine onto the parchment. A saltwater stain happens in Tarragona in 1492, when a young women who is hiding the Haggadah from the Spanish Inquisition, drops some water onto it after immersing her baby nephew in the sea as a Jewish welcoming ritual. The cat hair found in one of the drawings happens in Sevilla in 1480, when a teenaged African girl drops it from the cat hair brush she is using to make the drawings.
If you care about books, the history of the Jews in Europe, or just want to read something compelling, this is the book for you. Five stars. #geraldinebrooks, #sarajevohaggadah #peopleofthebook