Friday, July 17, 2009

History Lessons

Author Geraldine Brooks was a journalist in Sarajevo, covering the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal, when she first heard about the Sarajevo Haggadah. This rare Hebrew manuscript was created in medieval Spain at the time when the Iberian peninsula was the cradle of culture, art and medicine for Christians, Muslims and Jews. At a time when Jewish (and Muslim) belief forbade the use of illustrations in religious works, the haggadah was a rarity because of its beautiful and elaborate illuminations. Many priceless books had been destroyed in bombings of Sarajevo, and the fate of the haggadah was not known until after the war had ended. It was then learned that a Muslim librarian had rescued the document and hidden it in a bank vault.

These historical facts are the starting point for Brooks's novel People of the Book. She invents Hanna Heath, an Australian who specializes in the conservation and analysis of ancient documents. Hanna is summoned to Sarajevo to examine and repair the precious haggadah. The story follows Hanna as she attempts to unlock the mysteries of the book's past, but Brooks also jumps backward to trace the history of the document. Her method is pretty clever. When Hanna removes the binding she discovers a variety of clues to the book's history – an insect's wing, a wine stain, crystals of salt, a white hair. Brooks creates a story around each of these, working backwards in time from Sarajevo of 1940, when the book was smuggled to the mountains to escape destruction by the Nazis, through Vienna, Venice, and finally to Spain in the fifteenth century when the book was created. Each of these chapters is a short history lesson, and the history is none too pleasant, as the brutalities of anti-Semitism seem to touch everyone who attempts to save the haggadah. Some of these history lessons were effective but there were times when I felt that Brooks was trying to cram too many facts into a small story.

Hanna's own story has its complications as well. Her relationship with her mother is prickly at best, and as the narrative progresses we learn the reasons for this, I thought this was the least interesting part of the book. On the other hand , I loved the detailed descriptions of Hanna's conservation methods, and also the descriptions of how the ancient manuscripts were made, how the paints were mixed, how the brushes were created. There's a final plot twist that seemed a little too cinematic, but overall I enjoyed reading a book that taught me a lot about history I didn't know.

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