Dr. Hanna Heath is an Australian book conservator, sought after for her unique ability to preserve antique books. When this book opens in 1996, Hanna has been called in to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 500-year-old Jewish text, and one of the oldest of its kind. The Haggadah originated in Spain, and traveled through Italy and Germany before arriving in Bosnia. Tucked into the ancient pages are evidence of its long journey: tiny fragments of butterfly wing, a strand of hair, etc. Intrigued, Hanna decides to analyze these fragments and bring the Haggadah’s history to life.
Hanna’s modern-day analysis is interspersed with chapters working backwards to the Haggadah’s origins. While Hanna can only make inferences based on chemical analysis, author Geraldine Brooks imagines characters and situations that explain the butterfly wing, the hair fiber, and creation of the Haggadah itself. She takes us to Nazi Germany, 16th-century Venice, and 15th-century Spain, painting a vivid portrait of Jewish persecution. Each act of oppression and violence takes the Haggadah to a new country and ultimately to its final home. While this is based in fact, it is largely fiction (Brooks’ Afterword clearly explains all of this).
Meanwhile in the present time, Hanna has a contentious and complicated relationship with her mother, and develops feelings for a Bosnian man involved in the Haggadah conservation. The romance was insufficiently developed, and didn’t seem credible, and the denouement was a bit rushed. Still, I enjoyed reading the interconnected history of something I knew very little about.