Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is chosen to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, a much celebrated Jewish codex which has been rescued from a debris filled basement in war torn Sarajevo. As Hanna carefully restores the book she finds artifacts of another time- an insect wing, a wine stain, salt crystals and a white hair- tucked into the pages of the aging book. Her search to find out all that she can about the haggadah and its origins and whereabouts begin our journey through the books lifetime giving a glimpse into the various cultures and histories that have shaped the remarkable journey of the world renowned book.
Having read and enjoyed Geraldine Brook’s Pulitzer Prize winning historical novel, March, I knew I would be in for a marvel of carefully researched, beautiful writing, and in that I wasn’t disappointed. I must say I felt a little concern as I began reading the first chapter. I didn’t really connect with Hanna and the dry and unfamiliar terms that are a part of the book restoration world. When Hanna first appears she is a cold character. Semi-estranged from her mother, with whom she has a relationship like ice, she is all about her work and casual sexual encounters with as little involvement as possible. Cold and abrupt with those around her, I wondered whether I would warm up to the character or to the story.
I was first pulled into the book by Ozren, the Museum Director who rescued the haggadah, and whose life has been tragically touched by violence with the death of his wife and the perpetual comatose state of his only child. The stories told around each of the artifacts were perfection. I was completely entranced in each of these sections. The stories were rich in language, character and history, and I learned a lot of the way that Jews, Christians and Muslims have interacted with each other over time and in different places like Bosnia, Venice, Vienna and Seville. Each of the stories was full and complete in itself, and none of the characters were connected to each other. That made it really hard to put down a section once you had started reading a story because it was just that good, but that also made it equally difficult to pick up the book again since each story was completely contained with its own ending. Unfortunately Hanna’s story wasn’t strong enough of a connector for me to continue reading at a steady pace.
While the forays into the past were compelling Hanna’s present day story was the weakest part of the book. Half of her time is spent chasing down leads, but because she doesn’t have knowledge of the wonderful stories about the haggadah she can’t connect to them. By the second half she makes some shocking discoveries about her own heritage and the haggadah that send her racing around the world and against time to avert an international disaster, but this came so late that it seemed out of keeping with the character of the rest of the book. I was definitely interested to know what happened, but I felt that the ending was rather rushed and rather predictable in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t take away from the strength of the stories of the haggadah. Still, Hanna’s part in the story isn’t very big, and I would recommend this novel if only for the stories about the insect wing, salt crystals, wine stain and white hair. They were truly lovely.