Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks

4th Estate 2008

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book. Its a medieval codex thats miraculously survived pogroms, Nazis and the Bosnian war. Geraldine Brooks combines her journalistic skills with a powerful imagination to tell us the story of where the book came from, who made it, and how it survived. Her historical research is comprehensive; the details on ancient manuscripts, paints and brushes are staggering, and to a Book Fiend like me, utterly thrilling. She has also studied the ritual practices of the three faiths involved in the Haggadahs journey; Jews, Muslims and Christians all played roles in its history. This is probably the novels most inspiring theme: true stories about Muslim librarians risking their lives to preserve a Hebrew manuscript, Christians helping to shield it from the Inquisition, disparate believers whose love of art and learning enables them to work together for cultural ends.

The fictional protagonist is Hanna, an Australian scholar who specialises in conserving medieval codices. The Haggadah, believed lost, surfaces in Sarajevo, and she is summoned to oversee its preservation. While examining the book, she discovers wine and blood stains, an insect wing, salt residue, and a white hair trapped within its parchments. Brooks conjures possible explanations for these things, taking us back to 15th century Spain, 17th century Venice, and Vienna in 1894. The glimpses of the Haggadahs imaginary past are the most absorbing parts of this excellent novel. Brooks prose in these sections is evocative and richly detailed, and I felt I was right there, with the various monks, rabbis, scribes and scholars who had overseen the books passage. These alternate with present day chapters about Hannas life, and in particular, her fractious relationship with her neurosurgeon mother. Theyre interesting, if slightly melodramatic at times, but seem a bit prosaic compared to the splendour of the flashbacks.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Brooks has constructed another fascinating tale, certain to appeal beyond its immediate audience of library-haunting, medievalist Book Fiends. The revelations of the Haggadahs history read like a highly intelligent detective story, and the descriptions of Jews, Muslims and Christians in cahoots over a manuscript will brighten the spirits of all those who believe the term religious war to be an oxymoron.

Books reviewed are available at The Book Warehouse, in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Square.


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