Remarkable prayer book inspires a literary page-turner
Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel, March, but this Australian-born novelist had flown beneath my radar until my editor asked me to review her new novel, People of the Book. I took on the assignment willingly, but with few expectations. All I knew was that its plot centered on a rare book—a subject that always intrigues me—in this case an actual illuminated Haggadah, or Jewish prayer book, that resides in the National Museum of Bosnia in Sarajevo. I had no idea that Brooks' novel would turn out to be a hard-to-put-down mystery weighted by five centuries of history.
Awakened by a 2 a.m. call to her home down under, book conservator Hanna Heath is summoned to Sarajevo for the opportunity of a lifetime. Her assignment is to "stabilize" the Sarajevo Haggadah before it is put back on public display. The book had gone missing during the Bosnian War, secreted away in a bank safe-deposit box by a prudent museum worker. Now, with the war just over, the UN-backed government wants to exhibit the treasure as a symbol of Bosnia's resilience and the region's multicultural traditions.
Hanna finds Sarajevo a bombed-out shell of its once glorious past, but the book itself, despite years of neglect and mishandling, is as magnificent as she had imagined. The legendary Haggadah is an anomaly among Jewish volumes, with lavishly colored hand-painted miniature illustrations. As she takes apart the folios, Hanna finds the fragment of a wing of a butterfly and a white hair trapped within the binding. The parchment bears stains of wine and saltwater, and some clasps are missing. These anomalies intrigue Hanna, propelling her on an unofficial search to discover, or at least speculate on their origins. They also supply Brooks with the springboard to send the story backward in time in order to chronicle the remarkable (imagined) history of the Haggadah.
It is a journey of survival through the calamities of European history. The butterfly wing, we learn, can be traced back to the book's narrow escape from the Nazi conflagration, while the explanation for the missing clasps can be found in the fin de siècle Vienna of Freud and Schnitzler. The wine stains are from 17th-century Venice in the last years of the Inquisition, the saltwater from Barcelona in 1492, the year the Jews were expelled from Spain. The white hair dates back to the very origins of the book in Muslim-ruled Seville. Each of these stories is itself a small jewel, beautifully told, but combined into the larger tapestry of the novel they take on a convincing cumulative power.
No less compelling is the contemporary narrative—Hanna's story—that binds together the historic segments. The daughter of a world-renowned and suitably imperious female neurosurgeon, Hanna has never known the identity of her father, and in the course of her investigation into the origins of the book, she will learn the dramatic truth about her own origins. She also has a brief, tender affair with Ozren Karaman, the chief librarian at the museum and the man who managed to save the Haggadah from destruction during the Balkan conflict. Ozren's harrowing wartime experiences have left him with his own set of emotional scars, as well as a brain-dead son.
The title People of the Book, of course, plays off of the Islamic designation for Jews and Christians, whom Muslims respect for their shared ties to Abraham. The novel interweaves all three of these religious traditions and their histories (both illustrious and ignominious) into the texture of its story. But the title also clearly refers to the cast of credible characters Brooks has created, each of whom is touched or altered by an encounter with the Haggadah.
People of the Book is a marvelous novel, an exhilarating and beautifully written blend of mystery and history that is everything a certain pedestrian bestseller with "Da Vinci" in the title purported to be, but wasn't. After taking Brooks' irresistible journey through time in the company of a fascinating old book, you may wish you could board the next plane to Sarajevo to see the real thing.
Robert Weibezahl is a history-loving, book-collecting, mystery-writing Californian. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
BookPage Reviews 2009 January
People of the Book
Brooks, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March (2005), blends mystery and history in this splendid novel. At the center of the story is an actual Jewish religious work called the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the first texts of its kind to feature illuminated images. The volume endured several centuries' worth of religious conflicts and wars due to the vigilance of a brave group of individuals, who endangered their lives in order to preserve it. This fascinating fictionalization of the Haggadah's survival features Hanna Heath, a rare-books specialist in Sarajevo who is working to restore the text. Over the course of her labors, Hanna finds that the book reveals clues about itself and its background. Through small discoveries in the volume—a wine stain, a strand of hair, some salt crystals—Hanna is able to research the text's mysteries from a scientific standpoint. But these efforts only serve to lead her deep into sinister territory. In addition to Hanna's spine-tingling discoveries about the Haggadah, readers are treated to accounts of critical incidents in its remarkable history, which are presented in the form of short, beautifully crafted chapters. The Haggadah's story is compelling in itself, yet Brooks fleshes out the narrative many clever elements of suspense and an appealing love story. Complex yet wonderfully readable, this is first-rate literary fiction.
A reading group guide is included in the book. Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 November #1
From 1480 Seville to 1996 Sarajevo, a priceless scripture is chased by fanatics political and religious. Its recovery makes for an enthralling historical mystery.In Sydney, ace (and gorgeous) old-book conservator Hannah Heath gets a 2 a.m. phone call. She's summoned to Sarajevo to check out a 15th-century Spanish-made Haggadah, a codex gone missing in Bosnia during a 1992 siege. The document is a curiosity, its lavish illuminations appearing to violate age-old religious injunctions against any kind of illustration. Remarkably, it's Muslim museum librarian Ozren Karaman who rescued the Hebrew artifact from furious shelling. Questioning (and bedding) Ozren, Hannah examines the Haggadah binding and from clues embedded there--an insect's wings, wine stains, white hair--reconstructs the book's biography. And it's an epic. Chapter by chapter, each almost an independent story, the chronicle unwinds--of the book's changing hands from those of anti-Nazi partisans dreaming of departing for Palestine from war-torn Croatia, from schemers in 1894 Vienna, home, despite Freud and Mahler, of virulent anti-Semitism. Perhaps the best chapter takes place in 1609 Venice. There, not-so-grand Inquisitor Domenico Vistorini, a heretic hunter with a drinking problem, contends in theological disputation with brilliant rabbinical star Judah Aryeh. The two strike up an unlikely alliance to save the book, even while Vistorini at first blanches at its art--a beautiful depiction of the glowing sun, prophesying, the hysterical priest assumes, Galileo's heliocentric blasphemy. Tracing those illustrations back to their origin point, Hannah unkinks a series of fascinating conundrums--and learns, even more fiercely, to prize the printed page.Rich suspense based on a true-life literary puzzle, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks (March, 2005, etc.).Agent: Kristine Dahl/ICM Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 September #2
Salt crystals and insect wings. Caught in the binding of a valuable Haggadah saved by a Muslim from a Serb bombing in Sarajevo, these artifacts and more suggest the book's rich history. With a 17-city tour; reading group guide. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 November #1
When Australian rare-books author Hanna Heath travels to Sarajevo to restore the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. The beautiful book was rescued during a Serb bombing by Muslim librarian Ozren Karaman, and Hanna ends up deeply humbled by his suffering after their too easily launched affair. Eventually, she's led into her own past, where she unearths the truth about the father she never knew. What the reader gets in the meantime is an intriguing history of the Haggadah itself, revealed through artifacts accumulated over time and things the book has lost--its silver clasps, which were turned into earrings for a Viennese doctor's mistress in the late 1880s. From an insect wing, we learn that the book was saved from the Nazis by Partisan fighter Lola and a Muslim family friend; wine stains recall the Inquisition in early 1600s Venice and saltwater droplets the Jews' expulsion from Spain in 1492. A single cat hair returns us to the book's creation in 1480 Seville and the unexpected story behind its illustrator. Each story is engrossing and deftly woven into the narrative, though the telling is sometimes facile or cloying. Nevertheless, this latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March ) is a good addition to most libraries and excellent for discussion groups. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/07.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 58]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Reviewed by Margot Livesey
Reading Geraldine Brooks's remarkable debut novel, Year of Wonders , or more recently March , which won the Pulitzer Prize, it would be easy to forget that she grew up in Australia and worked as a journalist. Now in her dazzling new novel, People of the Book , Brooks allows both her native land and current events to play a larger role while still continuing to mine the historical material that speaks so ardently to her imagination. Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah , which disappeared during the siege in 1992, has been found, and Hanna has been invited by the U.N. to report on its condition.
Missing documents and art works (as Dan Brown and Lev Grossman, among others, have demonstrated) are endlessly appealing, and from this inviting premise Brooks spins her story in two directions. In the present, we follow the resolutely independent Hanna through her thrilling first encounter with the beautifully illustrated codex and her discovery of the tiny signs--a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a drop of salt, a wine stain--that will help her to discover its provenance. Along with the book she also meets its savior, a Muslim librarian named Karaman. Their romance offers both predictable pleasures and genuine surprises, as does the other main relationship in Hanna's life: her fraught connection with her mother.
In the other strand of the narrative we learn, moving backward through time, how the codex came to be lost and found, and made. From the opening section, set in Sarajevo in 1940, to the final section, set in Seville in 1480, these narratives show Brooks writing at her very best. With equal authority she depicts the struggles of a young girl to escape the Nazis, a duel of wits between an inquisitor and a rabbi living in the Venice ghetto, and a girl's passionate relationship with her mistress in a harem. Like the illustrations in the Haggadah, each of these sections transports the reader to a fully realized, vividly peopled world. And each gives a glimpse of both the long history of anti-Semitism and of the struggle of women toward the independence that Hanna, despite her mother's lectures, tends to take for granted.
Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless.
Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street will be published by HarperCollins in May 2008.[Page 34]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School -Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservationist, is thrilled to be chosen to work on the rare illuminated Haggadah created in Spain in the Middle Ages. The book had been protected in a museum in Sarajevo until 1994, when it was rescued from certain plunder during the Bosnian conflict and hidden in a bank vault by a Muslim librarian. Hanna is as eager to learn and preserve the mysterious history of the codex as she is to restore the manuscript. How did it come to be illustrated, a practice believed to have been forbidden by Jewish law? What is the meaning of the wine stain, the hair, the insect wing, and the salt crystals? The author uses these artifacts to weave a thrilling tale of the unusual creation of the Haggadah in Seville in 1480 and its dangerous journey to Tarragona, Venice, Vienna, and finally Sarajevo. It is a story of the Inquisition and wars, and the enlightenment or ignorance of the men and women who would save or destroy this brilliant treasure. Integrated into these compelling vignettes is Hanna's own story: her passion for her work, her unhappy relationship with her mother, and her bittersweet love affair. Sophisticated teens will appreciate Hanna's sarcastic, witty observations, which mask a vulnerable lack of confidence. The mystery of the codex and the forensic examinations are intriguing and will keep readers eagerly awaiting the next revelation. Inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, Brooks has imagined a thrilling mystery and a history that has deep ramifications in our own time.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA[Page 172]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.