by Robert WeibezahlJanuary, 2008
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 siecle 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.