By: Tatiana de Rosnay
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family”s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France”s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl”s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d”Hiv”, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah”s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.
This book has long been on my to-read list but I didn’t get around to picking it up sooner. Part of it was because I needed to emotionally prepare myself for it, if that makes any sense; this novel deals with the Holocaust, which is always a dark and painful subject no matter what medium it’s in. Prompted by a conversation with my friend and knowing that a movie adaptation starring Kirsten Scott Thomas was coming out, I finally mustered up enough courage to read it. MAJOR SPOILERS ahead!
I guess the best way to start this commentary of is that everything that the reviewers said at the back of the book (mystery, intrigue, suspense, “It will […] make you remmeber”) were all true. I could not put this book down (despite myself, despite the fact that I had a thesis chapter to complete). de Rosnay’s prose, the way she wrote the story, just sucked me right in. I just had to keep reading.
The 1942 storyline was just horrific to read. I’ve never read about the French experience in-depth concerning the Vichy government and their role in the Holocaust so like the character Julia, it was all eye-opening for me. Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise introduced me to the experiences of the everyday French person. But to see it through Sarah’s eyes just made it all the more poignant. It’s hard to imagine that people could do something so horrific to other people in such a systematic way. The conditions, the treatment…it’s haunting, certainly. And how those who survived survived…
As a historian, what also struck me was the way that the French people turned a blind eye to such events, the way they took a step back even as their neighbours and friends were being hauled off. That it took over fifty-three years for the French government to acknowledge that the atrocity was committed by French soldiers, police officers, citizens. National collective memory is as tricky as individual memory. Chirac’s speech admitting to these atrocities was very poignant, that their government had failed to protect the people they were bound to protect. But that the knowledge of these events continue to be ignored just goes to show how that national memory works.
I was in Paris last year so reading how Julia was traveling around town was a pleasure to re-experience. At the same time, it haunts me that while I was marveling at the architecture and the places from the Enlightenment and the 1800s and the medieval period, around the corner were places were wartime atrocities were being committed. It’s a haunting thought that I guess never occurred to me. Cities filled with historical significance and beauty from ages past can also contain darker secrets and moments that many wish to forget. It occurred to me what a fine line that can be.
But anyways, going back to the novel, it was tense getting through Sarah’s parts. I was preparing myself for the worse but even as events unfolded…de Rosnay did a good job in portraying this storyline, Sarah’s story was so sad. And that scene back at the apartment, the last scene from her narrative was just heartbreaking (for lack of a better word). Because although it focused on the Holocaust, at the heart of Sarah’s story was love for her little brother.
Julia’s storyline was especially captivating. It was interesting to read not only her journey in attempting to piece together what happened to Sarah back in 1942 but also struggle with her own problems in her marriage was compelling. I also enjoyed her reflections on life as an American in Paris, how despite having lived there for so long, she was still seen as different. The parallels to Sarah’s sense of Jewishness, of being an outsider, was interesting. It’s subtle, but still there.
The way that de Rosnay unfolded Julia’s journey was convincing; you really feel for her emotional struggle with the reality of her relationship with her husband (who was utterly aggravating, I was completely angry on behalf of the character; especially that part about Amelia…>=/). I like how her investigations brought her closer to her father-in-law, especially after what Julia said about her relationship with her in-laws.
The pacing of the novel was just right; it threw you right in and moves without a break as you follow Julia in uncovering what happened to Sarah over the post-war years. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at what happened to Sarah in the end; what she had experienced over the course of 1942 was enough to last a lifetime.
Overall, this novel was moving and heartbreaking. It can be a difficult read in terms of its subject matter but it’s an important one.