When Australian rare-books author Hanna Heath travels to Sarajevo to restore the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. The beautiful book was rescued during a Serb bombing by Muslim librarian Ozren Karaman, and Hanna ends up deeply humbled by his suffering after their too easily launched affair. Eventually, she’s led into her own past, where she unearths the truth about the father she never knew. What the reader gets in the meantime is an intriguing history of the Haggadah itself, revealed through artifacts accumulated over time and things the book has lost—its silver clasps, which were turned into earrings for a Viennese doctor’s mistress in the late 1880s. From an insect wing, we learn that the book was saved from the Nazis by Partisan fighter Lola and a Muslim family friend; wine stains recall the Inquisition in early 1600s Venice and saltwater droplets the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492. A single cat hair returns us to the book’s creation in 1480 Seville and the unexpected story behind its illustrator. Each story is engrossing and deftly woven into the narrative, though the telling is sometimes facile or cloying. Nevertheless, this latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks (March ) is a good addition to most libraries and excellent for discussion groups.
From the reading group notes
This book was well received by everyone. It was seen as interesting and intriguing, and real interest was shown in the story of the Haggadah. Some parts had to be re-read to orientate when the time and place changed.
All commented that it was engaging from the beginning, but someone felt disappointed and let down near end with Werner and Ozren’s deception regarding the book. Perhaps on reflection the ending was contrived to reach a resolution, and almost Ozren and Hannah lived happily ever after.
1) When Hanna implores Ozren to solicit a second opinion on Alia’s condition, he becomes angry and tells her, “Not every story has a happy ending.” (p. 37). To what extent do you believe that their perspectives on tragedy and death are cultural? To what extent are they personal?
A: Both cultural and personal. Both from different cultural and historical background. Hannah from a country not war torn and with a high standard of living, and with a greater feeling of control
2) What was it, ultimately, that made Father Vistorini approve the Haggadah? Since Brooks leaves this part of the story unclear, how do you imagine it made its way from his rooms to Sarajevo?
The group spent much time discussing and piecing together the journey of the book and how it came to Sarajevo.
The group thought that this book reinforced the idea of the preservation of books and history. An article in SMH January 7-8 2012 reinforced this idea where with technology we won’t preserve the process of wanting the piecing together of the journey of a book.
Highly recommended 8/10