In spite of being a proud Person of the Book, I do not like to full price for them. But I was recently blessed to receive a gift card to Barnes & Noble and decided to splurge on an unthinkable luxury: A first edition hardcover.
It’s kind of a no-brainer that Geraldine Brooks‘ latest novel should receive the highest honor this Yenta can bestow: First of all, she won the Pulitzer Prize for March. And it’s got a Jewishy title and its on the NY Times bestseller list, which means there are people other than Jews are reading it. And it’s a thriller about books, which just appeals to my nerdy little heart.
The mystery surrounds the origin of one book in particular, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a real manuscript written in Spain in 1350. If you know a little about Sephardic history, you know Spain was not a great place to be a Jewish book, or a Jew for that matter, soon after that time, so the fact that the haggadah survived the raging fires of the Inquisition is a miracle in itself. The story of its survival – all true and documented – takes it from Spain to Italy to Austria and finally to Bosnia, where it was hidden from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian. It stayed in Sarajevo, and was brandished at a community seder in 1995 after the Bosnian government was accused of selling it to buy weapons.
Have I mentioned that this Haggadah is one of the few Jewish illuminated manuscripts in existence since Jews back then considered artistic representation of godly ideas to be idolatry? It’s simply stunning – just the pictures take my breath away.
But back to the novel on my nightstand. Over the course of its travels, the Haggadah came into contact with real people, and it is their stories that Brooks weaves together as the main character, Hannah Heath, an Aussie and professional book restorer, examines each hair, partial butterfly wing and wine stain for clues.
I’m no critic, thank goodness, because I might have to be more cynical about the absolute majesty of this story, kind of like Yvonne Zipp, writing for the Christian Science Monitor:
As the book goes further back in time, allowing for greater imaginative license, Brooks tries just a little too hard to build connections between religions. But that’s not to take away from her abilities. In the hands of a lesser writer, it’s easy to imagine the Haggadah having become a gilded Forrest Gump.
Feh, lady, life’s like an old Haggadah – everyone, if you go back far enough, eventually shares the same story.
I’m not finished with People of the Book yet, savoring each chapter because books this delicious don’t come along every day (certainly not brand new, with a book jacket.) But I’m recommending it to all of you anyway because I know you appreciate good fiction based on even better reality.