There had been a haggedah, also; he was sure of that. Hidden in that secret closet where they went to speak the forbidden language. Her face, when she lit the candles. So lined, so weathered in the flaring light. But her eyes, so kindly when she smiled at him. Her voice, when she sang the blessings over the candles. So soft, just a whisper.’
This novel tells the story of the survival of a priceless cultural icon, the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’, a small but magnificently designed and illustrated book. Undecorated versions were used by Jewish families in their daily devotions, but this one would have been appropriate for palaces or cathedrals. This fictional version was made in 1480 as a present for a very important wedding. Brooks’ present day protagonist is Dr Hannah Heath, an independent minded Book Conservator. She is called to work on the legendary Sarajevo Haggedah at the end of hostilities in the Civil Wars of the 1990.
‘As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.’
In alternating chapters, Brooks takes the reader further back in time to witness Hannah’s search for the origin and ongoing history of the book. The author cleverly interweaves the process of meticulous, sensuous, physical investigation with Hannah’s relationship with her powerful but emotionally distant mother. It also follows her quest to find a partner in a dislocated personal world of endless travel and short term affairs.
The considerable research undertaken by the author to capture the social and cultural contexts of each historical period does not overwhelm the narrative rhythm. What she does establish with sensitivity are the common desires and needs experienced across a diverse range of cultures by characters of varying sympathies and ethical codes. The often existential conflicts between individual desires and social and cultural obligations are acted out in each age. The agonies of Father Vistorini, the Pope’s Inquisitor in Venice in 1609, who is haunted by terrifying memories of the murders of his originally Jewish family, are recorded in powerful detail;
‘He dragged a hand through his greasy hair, as if he could drag the memories from his mind and cast them away. He knew now, perhaps he had known always, the truth of that past about which he must not think, must not even dream. He saw the smashed foot of the Madonna, the small roll of parchment in some rough grip, but through his tears, he had seen the words ‘Love the lord thy god with thy whole heart…’ He had seen the Hebrew letters, crushed into the dirt beneath the boot of the man who had come to arrest his parents and put them to death as crypto-Jews.’
The Sarajevo Haggedah is the link between the different ages, which at first glance have little in common with each other. Brooks has brought together people from different faiths who are striving to maintain their religious beliefs and cultural practices in often hostile or indifferent environments. They endure spiritual persecution and the brutal destruction of not only cultural icons, but entire peoples and ways of life. In this context, the survival of the real ‘Sarejavo Haggedah’ is celebrated in this fictional account, written in Brook’s characteristically crisp, detailed style. Her delicate imagery and swirling subtext of suffering and longing make this a rewarding and intriguing reading experience.
Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me…’