What do a rare butterfly, some wine stains, a white cat hair and a few grains of salt have in common? They are all clues to the remarkable history of an ancient book that has criss-crossed Europe for over six hundred years. Passing through Jewish, Christian and Muslim hands, The Sarajevo Haggadah has survived repeated religious persecutions and various wars to reveal something of the life of medieval Jews.
A Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is read by Jews celebrating the Passover Seder. Most are plain, but the Sarajevo Haggadah is richly illustrated in a style similar to many illuminated Christian manuscripts of the fourteenth Century. Observing the conservationist Andrea Pataki at work on the Sarajevo Haggadah gave Geraldine Brooks the framework for her novel.
Rare book restorer, Hannah Heath, discovers various fragments trapped in the quires of an ancient manuscript. Having completed her restoration work, Hannah sets off on a forensic investigation to uncover the book’s history. Working backwards from a young Jew caught up in the Bosnian War, through the ghetto in Venice right back to the Expulsion from Spain, each fragment reveals a story of mingled tragedy and hope, loyalty and betrayal. Combining clues from the real manuscript with ideas from her vivid imagination, Brooks has created a riveting history of the People of the Book.
Hannah’s story soon becomes mingled with the history of the Haggadah, as she wrestles with her own history and discovers connections she never knew, which make her the latest of the People of the Book.
Stories told in flashback can be tedious, the two threads becoming difficult to follow in parallel. Brooks has done a superb job. Each clue is examined in turn, followed by the fictionalised history that placed it in the manuscript. The historical scenes are vividly painted, and peopled with characters with whom the reader can identify. Every episode tells of the best and worst of human character, as the fear of the other leads to fracturing of harmonious relationships between communities of faith. Brooks’ message is clear: the Haggadah’s survival by the actions of people of different faiths calls us to seek reconciliation.
At times, the histories are rather too detailed, especially the torture scenes. And the final episode of Hannah’s story would be more at home in Mission Impossible. But overall, this is a well-researched and well-written book. It’s definitely worth reading.