Hanna Heath, the heroine of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Press, $25.95), is an Australian conservator who has a strained relationship with her mother and an appreciation, bordering on obsession, for the finer details of historic texts. An expert in ancient Hebrew and Arabic, Hanna is called to Sarajevo, towards the end of the most recent Balkan War in 1996, to preserve and analyze the illuminated 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah, which has just surfaced from years in hiding — protected during the war by a Muslim librarian.
Thus Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, begins her marvelous novel — part mystery, part historical fiction, part Jewish history tour of Europe. It draws the narrative of European Jewry through the passage of time and the passing of a single text from country to country, family to family, and conflict to conflict. The artifacts Hanna finds tucked into the binding of the Haggadah (a hair, an insect’s wing), and the stains on its pages, serve as the basis for chapters that spin ever further back into in the history of the 700-year-old text. The mystery and beauty of the Sarajevo Haggadah itself is no fiction, and parts of Brooks’ fantasy are interwoven with the few details we have about the actual origins and path of this book, now on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.
Brooks — whose previous historical fiction novels were similarly rooted in real events — has an ear for building authentic and distinct voices and characters. Here she moves from Sarajevo 1940 — when the Holocaust had come to Yugoslavia and another Muslim librarian saved both Jews and their books — to Vienna in the 19th century as the shadow of anti-Semitism threatens a wealthy bourgeois Jewish community, to Venice at the tail end of the Inquisition, to Spain under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the end of Spanish Jewry. Each chapter highlights a crisis in the Jewish world (expulsion, book burning, torture, murder) and yet each also illuminates that which buoys these battered communities, a combined commitment to knowledge and a singular focus on survival.
Throughout, the Haggadah becomes a symbol of that perennial Passover intonation: that “in every generation, enemies have risen up against us…but God has saved us from their hands.” And yet not without bloodshed. A priest watching the rabbi of the Venice Ghetto moving through the city comments, “He was walking with the stooped, head-down posture he always affected when outside the Geto (sic)… . How many small humiliations had it taken to bow him over into that cringing stoop: the abusive pranks of loutish boys, the jeers and spittle of the ignorant. If only the stiff-necked fellow would embrace the truth of Christ…”
Between chapters, the modern sleuth Hanna Heath comes increasingly to life. A series of twists and unexpected jumps in the final chapters are satisfyingly shocking, both to the 30-something hard-boiled Australian conservator herself and to the reader. Brooks has incorporated into this text a series of modern day and ancient feminist heroes, from those who save the Haggadah — and their own people — time and again to those women, Brooks implies, who may have contributed to the Sarajevo Haggadah in the first place. It’s exactly the sort of fairy tale we should be sharing with our daughters.
Sarah Wildman, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and The Guardian.