“ . . . it’s amazing what you can learn about a book by studying the chemistry of a breadcrumb.”
This statement in the opening chapter of this book sets the scene for the story. There are two streams of narrative – present-day from 1996 to 2002 – and historical components reaching back to from 1944 to 1480. Both streams are meticulously researched and intriguing.
Australian book conservator, Hanna Heath, receives a commission from Sarajevo in Bosnia to restore a recently discovered, lavishly illustrated Jewish prayer book – a Haggadah – created in medieval Spain. This is an actual Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah and some of the facts are true to the manuscript’s known history, but most of the plot and all the characters are imaginary. Conservators, she says, do not restore to original state, but repair the damage in the manner in which it was created originally. As she works, she finds minuscule fragments of clues which set her thinking about where the Haggadah may have been. This is when the story becomes historical and a fragment of a butterfly wing takes us back to Sarajevo in 1944; a groove in the binding to Vienna in 1894, a wine stain to Venice in 1609 and salt crystals to Tarragona in Spain in 1492. Each of these sections are set in, or begin in, Jewish enclaves within the cities and give insight into the Jewish living conditions in the ghettos, and rather unsettling stories of the brutal persecution of the Jews throughout these areas during the Inquisition, and periods of hatred for Jews when their writings were scrutinised and many, many were destroyed.
Incorporated in these stories is information about the production of these wonderful manuscripts: of making coloured paints (ground lapis lazuli for blue, worms for red etc), how the parchment is prepared, how the brushes are made (with 1, 2 or 3 cat hairs attached to a feather!)
The writing style is easy to read and the facts seem to have been well researched. As the cover says: ‘a gripping and moving novel of war, art, love and survival’.