Sometimes you can be lucky.
That was how I felt when I read Geraldine Brooks Year of Wonders. Wonderful book. Beautifully written. Interesting historical basis.
I am not so sure I feel the same way about People of the Book ~ though I enjoy the punning on the title. The main character, Hanna, annoys me. I find Hanna & the plot elements around her contrived ~ & I really don't feel the need to know about other people's sex lives. Just, no. Ok?
On the other hand, as I have found with all Brooks work, she has done her research & the facts upon which she has based her fictionalised account of the Sarajevo Haggadah are fascinating in & of themselves.
What is a haggadah & what makes the Sarajevo Haggadah so special?
Haggadah means telling & during the Passover seder Jewish families retell their time of slavery in Egypt & the miracles God performed there to set them free. A Haggadah contains prayers, readings from the Torah, instructions for the Seder, old and new commentary on the Exodus, and sometimes songs. What it usually doesn't contain is pictures because pictures contravene the biblical injunction to make no graven images. The Sarajevo haggadah has pictures. Lots & Lots of pictures.
Which brings us to our history because at one time, Spain, that pot of hotblooded headstrong Lotharios was anything but. It was largely controlled & influenced by Islamic Moors & had, unusually for Europe at the time, a well educated, well read populace with great religious freedom & tolerance. The saying went The Christians raise the armies, the Muslims raise the buildings & the Jews raise the money. Certainly the Christians raised the armies. Isabella of Castile was busily doing that for a good part of her life, eventually managing to unite Castile & Aragon, freeing both countries from crippling debt & laying the foundations for modern Spain. In the process Isabella, who seemed to think she was the personal spokesman for God Himself, announced the expulsion of all Moors & Jews unless they converted to the Christian faith ~ which is not important except for one minor thing; the Jews of Spain were a little more liberal in their interpretations of scripture & it was for them the Sarajevo haggadah was originally made, probably as a wedding present. You can read about its varied & colourful history here or google Mr Wiki.
It survived the inquisition, WWII & the Bosnia~Hertzigovia conflict. It's fascination is not just in that it is incredibly old, perhaps dating back to the 1300's, but that it's illustrations are still so bright & colourful & depict things like Jews celebrating a seder. The academics got their hands on it [cheap at the price] & now the likes of you & I are never likely to set eyes on it though several facsimiles have been done, the more recent a loving reproduction on traditional vellum, just like the original!
A reproduction is never going to reproduce the stains of a life lived: the wine, the salt water, the insect wings casually caught between the pages. It is upon these things Geraldine Brooks hangs her story, tracing the journey of European Jewry through the worn pages of the haggadah. As a literary device it only sort of works. All the stories are left unfinished & hanging ~ a ploy that really annoys me however *realistic* [questionable] such a tactic might be. Each *story* is broken by Hanna's own journey to her Jewish roots but her problematic relationship with her own mother I find implausible & distracting.
On the whole I did not find People of the Book as satisfying as others of Brook's work but there was enough of interest & fascination to get me to the end. Have you read this? What did you think?