Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Sarah's Key

The past is never far from the future, especially in Tatiana de Rosnay's haunting novel, Sarah's Key.  The lives of two strong, compelling characters weave together an unforgettable story of chance, courage, pain and French history.

But first, a public service announcement: marketers need to stop referring to books of this ilk, including The Kite Runner and other beautiful, poignant and disturbing books as "beloved" — or they should be fired on the spot.  Winnie-the-Pooh is beloved.  The Eyre Affair is beloved.  This novel is many things, but certainly not "beloved."  Readers will resent being played like that and will stop reading books plied in such a stunningly deceitful way.

Thank you.  We now return to our regular programming.

In the summer of 1942, the Vichy government cooperated with the Germans to deal with the "Jewish problem."  French police and French soldiers rounded up many of the Jews of Paris and corralled them in the Vélodrome d'Hiver.  Not all Jews were taken: a few were left behind, mostly teens, so it didn't appear to be a roundup.

Days later, those who survived the heat without shelter, food, water, medical attention and sanitation in Vel' d'Hiv were taken to a camp outside Orléans.  There the men were separated from the women and children, never to be seen again.  Days later, mothers were torn from their children by any means possible (buckets of water dousing the child, if the parties were lucky) and loaded into a train.  The children were left in the camp, alone, with only the police to keep an eye that they don't escape.  Those who survived those long, miserable days met the same fate as their parents: a train ride to Auschwitz and immediate execution.

In the novel, Sarah was one of those children rounded up that late summer night.  Before the police could find her 4-year-old brother, she hid him in the cupboard in their apartment, locking it soundly with a key so he would be safe until they returned later that evening, when this mess was over.  As Sarah was about to learn, this was a much bigger situation than she realized, and she clung to the key with her life.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv, Julia Jarmond is writing an article for her English-language newspaper in Paris.  Her family has begun renovation on an apartment that once belonged to her husband's grandmother, who was recently placed in a nearby convalescent home.  She was sickened by what she read about Vel' d'Hiv, and she struggled to learn what she could.  It was as real as the man whose entire family was taken — except him, because the French left behind some teens.  It was as real as the fact that her husband's family moved into their apartment within weeks of the roundup.  It was as real as the tales told by the witnesses who couldn't believe their government would do the work of the Germans for them.

The stories of the two are told, for the most part, in alternating chapters that take a reader's breath away.  One wants to know what happened to Sarah as Julia investigates not only the story for the newspaper, but her own story, and the story of her husband's family — and asks if anyone can be held blameless in that chaotic time.  When the story resolves itself, one can only answer the question in her/his own heart of hearts.

This is a fabulously written story: a deft tale with plausible, sympathetic (but not cloyingly so) characters facing unfathomable obstacles with everything they are.  I read deep into the night and thought about the story even when the book was not in my hand.  It haunts me now, and I cradle Sarah's hope and pain in my own heart, living every excruciating moment with her in my mind, over and over.  My mouth was agape time and again as the story continued, unrelenting, through waves of horror and hope, sadness and redemption.

The language of Sarah's Key is smooth and lovely, not always the case for a book originally published in a different language than English.  This is not a translation, which gladdened my heart; translations often take the readers a step away from the story when the words become a story of their own.

I recommend this book only for the brave reader, or the foolish one — this book will not leave readers unchanged, and only those who wish to continue to live with Julia and Sarah in their minds and hearts should pick up the book.  If you are brave enough to do so, you will not regret it.

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