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 anti-Semitism. 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.
Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is at once a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity, an ambitious, electrifying work by an acclaimed and beloved author.
This book is very much in my wheelhouse, and it did not disappoint. It's a story about history, religion, and books ... with a bit of mystery and intrigue ... told by an Australian narrator. As she pursues each line of inquiry about the artifacts found in the Haggadah (and in one case, an item that appears to be missing from the book), we peel back the layers of the book's history and travels. It turns out she is learning her own back story in the process; this occasionally seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but the frequent shifts of venue prevented the story from getting bogged down in ruminations, and ultimately Hanna's back story provides an anchor and counterpoint to the Haggadah's story. Along the way she also comments on everything from Massachusetts drivers to Viennese architecture, but it's actually one of her colleagues who provides what to me is the central point of the story:
“...the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other'--it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists...same old, same old.”
This book first came to my attention during a visit to the local synagogue several months ago as part of a Bible study class and has popped up a few other places as a reference, so when someone suggested it as an emergency replacement for the March book club meeting (long story), I was eager to read it. Due to time constraints the only copy I could find was an audiobook, and consuming it this way in fact contributed to my enjoyment. The reader, Edwina Wren, employed the accents of the various characters with the ease of Meryl Streep. Meanwhile, her "normal" voice reminded me of a dear friend of mine who's a librarian in Adelaide -- not just her inflections but also the main character's deep affection and respect for books, which comes through in the reading.
This book gave me much food for thought. It's heartbreaking to think of how many works of art and literature have been lost and are still being lost due to war and intolerance. On a happier note, I also mused along with Hanna that the Haggadah was created in a land and time so distant from hers and that her home's very existence was unknown to the original creators of the book. (The author states it more eloquently than I can paraphrase.) It was also curious to me (yes, I'm a little behind with my posts) that I ended up finishing the book on Palm Sunday. This was a few days after our meeting, but I was far enough along that the spoiler factor was not strong, and there were still little gems and surprises unearthed in the process.