People Of The Book: Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer prize winning Australian author Geraldine Brooks (March, Year of Wonders) has written another cracker of a book. The central artefact of the book is the so-called Sarajevo Haggadah, a 500-year-old prayer book used at Passover, remarkably illustrated in a time when most Jewish manuscripts did not contain any figurative art at all. Mystery? Now there is a real Sarajevo Haggadah and in war-torn Sarajevo in 1992 it was remarkably saved from destruction.

Now fiction kicks in and in 1996 Hanna Heath, sassy forthright Australian conservator of medieval manuscripts, is bidden to Sarajevo to repair and document this precious book. She wonders who were the people of the book ‘the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it’? Her forensic samples and scrapings taken from the book lead us there. A butterfly wing takes us to Sarajevo 1940, a silver clasp to Vienna 1894, wine stains to Venice 1609, salt water to Tarragona 1492, a white hair to Seville 1480. Brooks uses her vivid imagination to conjure up these five crucial episodes in the Haggadah’s past history. She is a great storyteller and wears her considerable research lightly. But she is not just an historical novelist.

Interspersed is Hanna’s story, a first-person narrative. Not so much mystery as contemporary pacy thriller, in both her personal and professional life. In the Koran, the people of the book were the Jews and the Christians, and indeed people of these three faiths and their interrelationships are at the core of this book. No doubt, in each historical episode, there is much suffering and terrible persecution of the Jews, but ultimately Brooks is very keen to elucidate the fact that the things that people of different religions and ethnicity have in common are stronger than what divides them. A message of hope for our times.