For some reason unknown I still haven't read the Pulitzer Prize-winning March by Geraldine Brooks.
No excuse it's on the shelf waiting and I think the minute I set foot in the US on the American leg of my Around the World in Eighty Books gap year I will read it. I'm thinking when I get there that I might stick with some historical reading because if you think my world geography's woeful you should check out my US history.Plenty of Americans I know put me to shame by listing very reigning English monarch that we've ever had with correct dates and in the right order, plus they know every last detail about them all too.
Time I reciprocated and I will.
So I had a reading window when Geraldine Brooks' latest novel People of the Book, and published by Fourth Estate arrived between Christmas and New Year.Incidentally a clever little play on words and brand name now evident on the reverse of Fourth Estate books, "4the future".
Someone threw their coffee up in the air and went eureka when they though that one up.Let's mention the cover too,sumptuous all-over very gold with patina, catches the light and will blind you eye-catchingly well when you see it on a shelf.
I needed something to counterbalance a diet rich in Max Sebald, thought I'd just take a look and finally turned the last page a few days later.
In a way I could easily add this to the list of Around the World in Eighty Books reading because Geraldine Brooks is actually Australian and the book escorts the reader nicely around Europe.
The story, and it's a good one, follows the historical journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah as it works its way back to its origins in Seville in 1480. From Sarajevo in the 1990's back to Bosnia during World War Two, the salons of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the inquisition in Venice and Barcelona in 1492
The Haggadah, brought out and read at the Jewish Passover and this one the most exquisitely beautiful example, everyone who touches it is deeply affected by it.The Sarajevo Haggadah actually exists and was again thought lost during the most recent conflict in Bosnia only to be discovered in a bank vault where a Muslim librarian had hidden it for safe-keeping.
It's 1996 and Hanna Heath book saviour extraordinaire discovers minute artefacts within the binding as she restores the Haggadah and it is these that give the story its foundation, a tiny fragment of an insect's wing, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair. All put under the microscopic technology of the 21st century in an effort to persuade the book to yield up its deep secrets.
Geraldine Brooks has mixed truth with history and with mystery, there's violence and intrigue, a bit of torture, through which I had to close my eyes because I can't bear to read it, (fountain pens fine, torture not it would seem) and all wrapped up in the modern-day world of book restoration, fine-art forgery and an awful lot of parchment and ink made with some very dubious substances. The detail however is meticulous and I was confident that Geraldine Brooks had done a vast amount of homework without waving it under my nose and asking for an A*.
All the factual detail blended in seamlessly with the plot and I think I could now make my gold leaf less than a thousandth of an inch thick if I could just find the requisite meter of calf's intestine.The book divides up nicely into readable length chapters as each historical scenario is played out inbetween Hanna's latter-day strivings and initially I read it a chunk at a time, but that only left me dashing to pick the book up again after about ten minutes to see what happened next. In the end I sat down and read it right through.
And the dedication inside the book most appropriate,
'for the librarians'