Crossposted on JewishLiteraryReview.com
It’s a novel inspired by the true events surrounding the Sarajevo Haggadah, an artifact from the Middle Ages that was hidden from the Nazis during World War II by a quick-thinking Islamic scholar. The document survived the Bosnian war in the early 1990s when another Islamic scholar had the foresight to protect it from Serbian shelling by placing it in an underground bank vault. Brooks wrote a fascinating article in the Dec. 3, 2007 issue of the New Yorker about the Sarajevo Haggadah, its WWII rescuer, his family and their arrival in Israel in the late 1990s. The New Yorker does not have the full article on its Web site but you can find a pdf copy of the text here on Brooks’ Web site. I’m a man but I’m not ashamed to say I got a little va klimpt at the end of the article. It is that moving.
As for Brooks’ new novel, here’s a blurb:
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 bindingâ€”an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hairâ€”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.
Like I mentioned earlier, the reviewers have been buzzing about the book in the last few days. With the exception of a few quirks noted by some of the critics, most of the reviews have been quite good.
Author Emily Barton, writing in the L.A. Times, says Brooks picks up where A.S. Byatt left off:
A.S. Byatt published her literary mystery “Possession” almost 18 years ago, and it’s been a long dry season for the genre since â€” perhaps because books about books don’t naturally present many occasions for derring-do. Geraldine Brooks has, however, half-found and half-invented a swashbuckling book and, despite occasional quirks, woven a tale that’s haunting and satisfying.
Heller McAlpin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, says, “[i]n writing an immensely readable novel that fleshes out gaps in the historical record, Brooks has extended the reach of a story that bears recounting.”