In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding--an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair--she begins to unlock the book's mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book's journey from its salvation back to its creation.
In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city's rising antisemitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah's extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna's investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.
Pages: 372 (Hardcover)
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
I finished the book almost 27 days ago (according to goodreads) and I am still enthralled with it. This was one of the best books I read this year and I am giving it as a gift to quite a few people during the holiday season. In addition to having interesting and multi-dimensional characters, I learned a lot of history. The book starts in 1996 with Hanna doing a book autopsy to learn more about the journey of the book. As she works to figure out each piece, we go back to a point in history where we learn how that mark or object got into the book.
The characters in the book all experience loss and their relationship with the book symbolizes a bit of connection and a chance at restoration. As a lover of books, I appreciated the high status and sacredness books were given. I also loved that saving the book became a metaphor for saving lives. The book is a Higgadah which is a Jewish holy book; however, Christians and Muslims also risked their lives to save the book.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was the December selection for book club. One of the members of the group HATED the book and I found myself upset. One positive thing about the experience was that I talked much more than I had at any other meeting. In a way, the book helped me find my voice. I was impressed with all of the details. As I wrote in my Sunday Salon post, I had to reread paragraphs a few times because I wanted to make sure that I got everything.
In addition to heavy topics such as religious persecution and relationships, one of the character spends time in Boston. I feel that she captured the flavor of the people here, particularly on the road, very well:
"I took the T from Logan airport to Harvard Square. I hate driving in Boston. It's the traffic that drives me spare, and the absolutely terrible manners of the motorists. Other New Englanders refer to Massachusetts drivers as "Massholes."
The terrible manners of the motorists is such a delicate way of saying that people on the roads of MA are rude!! I brought the quote up in book club and was happy to realize that other people who had lived here much longer than me felt the same way.
In book group a couple of people did not like the story of line of Hanna. She is the rare-book expert whose story centralizes what we learn about the book and its path. I enjoyed reading about her crisis with her relationship with her mother, her challenge with her career choice, and trying to regain her confidence with her career. She also struggles with having healthy intimate relationships. From a structural standpoint, all of those themes are reflected in other people's stories and journies in the book. I liked Hanna because she was struggling with things that many people, particularly women do: how to balance life and work. How to make people understand what is it about your work that gives you passion. How to be both independent and connected to a family.
I am counting the book towards two challenges:
Women Unbound: There are several strong female characters who are struggling to find their place in a field and world dominated by men. Even though I did not discuss it above, several female characters struggle with their sexuality being used as a means of oppression.
Orbis Terrarum: The author was born in Australia.