The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)
The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!
In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:
The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.
I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.
Links to better understand this book:
- Wikipedia page on the Sarajevo Haggadah
- What is an Haggadah? Answer by AskTheRabbi.org
- the real story and mysteries of the Sarajevo Haggadah, as explained by the Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.
Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club
Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna