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.