Having previously watched and reviewed the movie of Sarah's Key, I decided that I should also read the novel. I'm one of those people who normally likes to do these things in the right order (Read the book and then watch the film) as I always find that a novel provides for more context and greater character understanding and development than a movie of the story ever allows for. This is not one of those cases.
"This is not a historical work and has no intention of being one. It is my tribute to the children of the Vel d'Hiv."
The novel has two plots running continuously for the first half of the novel, Paris in 1942 and the same city sixty years later in 2002. In 1942 a young girl begins a serious of horrific events when French police come to her Paris apartment and arrest her and her parents as part of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. Her small brother refuses to leave, wishes to hide in a secret concealed cupboard and so the young girl, thinking that her brother will be safer there and that they'll be back to get him soon, the young girl locks him in. The serious of events that follow, imprisonment in the Vélodrome d'Hiver, horrific train journeys to the internment camp, trains departing for Auschwitz, the lead the girl, Sarah, further and further away from her brother and more desperate to get back to him. Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American born journalist now living in Paris, begins a quest to discover Sarah's story and the events of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup after beginning to renovate their new Paris apartment that has been in her husband's family since 1942. As the two stories develop the impact of the events of 1942 are explored both on those people at the time as well as the effect it has had on future generations and the untold story of Jewish imigrants in France and their treatment by the French government is told.
On 16 and 17 July 1942 code name Operation Spring Breeze, was placed into effect. 13,152 Jewish imigigrants and their French born children were arrested, 5,802 (44%) were women and 4,051 (31%) were children. They were first taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, and enclosed cycle track (It partly burnt down and was destroyed in 1959) where they were kept for five days with no toilets and one water tap. From the velodrome the victims were temporarily held at a internment camp at Drancy and then those who surived the crammed wagons without food or water ended up in Auschwitz. The roundup accounted for more than 25% of the 42,000 Jews sent from France to Auschwitz in 1942, what is most significant is the role that the French Republic played.
On 16 July 1995, the President, Jacques Chirac, issued the following statement:
"These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted('secondée') by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations... France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners."
The story is told from two perspectives of Sarah and Julia, and all other characters are seen from their discourse. Whilst Sarah, her parents and her brother (A character who we meet briefly but is central to the story) are very well developed most other characters are black and white and lack substance, including Julia who comes off as quite self-involved. The book, more so than the film, is highly critical of actions of the French police in 1942 yet any opportunity to show them as real people is missed, an issue also mentioned in the novel in regards to the article that Julia writes.
The novel is written by Tatiana de Rosnay. I haven't read any of her other work but I have to say that so far I'm not impressed with her writing ability. It is the subject that makes this novel, not the writing (I find the writing in contemporary times very week and there was not enough of 1942 in the novel, the complete second half is only based on 2002). She also seems to use writing tools (Such as short sentences and withholding character names) unsuccessfully, providing more style over substance. They get in the way of the story rather than enhance it. It lacks the true emotion that similar stories, such as the boy in the striped pyjamas or a bag of marbles ( A hard to find book by Joseph Joffo describing his experiences as a Jewish child in Paris in the 1940's that is well worth the effort to find it) provide.
I never thought I'd say this, but if you are at this moment trying to decide whether t read the book before watching the film version, I'd say don't bother. You are not losing anything really by not reading the novel, the film does a much better job of presenting the characters as realm fully fledged people than the novel does. That the story is told is of far more importance than how it is told so I would recommend either reading the book or watching the film but if I had a choice between the two I'd watch the film.
This review is published under my user name on both Ciao and Dooyoo.
~Once Upon a Time in Paris~
Sarah's Key tells the story of an event in Paris during the Second World War and how it changed the lives of many, both those directly and indirectly involved at the time and for many decades later. It's not a book I would expect to sell well in France because it quite literally opens the cupboard and rattles the skeletons that many would prefer to leave firmly locked away. It is a look at the shame of a nation summed up with the word 'collaboration'.
Paris in July 1942 was a city under occupation. The Jewish population had already been marked with the yellow stars on their clothes which were the standard branding of the Nazi regime. In a Paris apartment a family receive a feared but expected knock at the door and know that the time has come to leave. A man with a list - a French policeman - tells them to go and pack enough things for a couple of days away. The son is in the bedroom and refuses to leave, telling his sister he will hide in their special place - a space behind the walls where nobody will know that he is there. She tells him she'll be back for him soon, turns the secret lock and leaves him behind.
The family are taken to the 'Velodrome d'Hiver' or as it will become known, the Vel d'Hiv. Thousands are crammed into the space without sanitation, food or water. People die, some commit suicide, others go quickly mad from their incarceration. The imprisoned are then sent off to holding camps outside Paris where the children are separated from their parents and the parents are sent away by train. The authorities have misjudged the requirements of a camp full of children - there's no care, little food, the children become like animals and are riddled with lice. They will eventually be sent off by train with other unrelated adults because nobody wants the French public to see a train full of children or it will be clear that the lies of sending people to work camps cannot be true. The girl escapes and tried to find her way back to her brother.
~Are there really still stories to be told about such a well documented time?~
It's easy to think that there can't be much more to be written about the Second World War, that the treatment of the Vel d'Hiv children is just standard fare for what the Nazis did and that it happened over and over again in many different countries. Some people seem to suffer Holocaust fatigue and to want to consign the horrors to history. The Vel d'Hiv Round Up is different, special and somehow more shocking because the incarceration and subsequent deportation to the death camps was not the work of the Nazis. The entire thing was masterminded and carried out by the French and so takes on the status of something that can't just be blamed on the Germans.
~Sixty Years On~
Sixty years pass and an American-born journalist Julia Jarmond is given an assignment to write about the 60th Anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv Round-Up. It's not something she or her British photographer colleague had heard about and it's soon clear that people don't want to talk and her French husband is angry and wants her to leave well alone. When Julia realises that an apartment owned by her husband's family which is soon to become her home is one into which the family moved just a couple of weeks after the Round-Up, her assignment takes on a personal importance. As part of her research she tracks down the name of the family who lived there before her in-laws and becomes determined to learn about what happened to them, particularly the young girl Sarah.
Her research for her assignment and her search for the girl bring her into conflict with her husband, sees her finding an unexpected ally in her father-in-law and leads her to travel thousands of miles in search of Sarah and her story. Along the way she uncovers shocking events and reveals multiple secrets that have been kept for many years.
The book presents the two stories of the young girl and the journalist in parallel, skipping back and forth over the intervening 60 years until we reach the point at which Sarah's story stops and we continue only with Julia's and are left to wonder what happened next. I've reviewed a lot of books following this sort of structure recently and gleaned from comments left on those reviews that many people yearn for the 'start at the very beginning' linear format. I disagree and I like and enjoy the way parallel stories can - if written well - give us glimpses of what we know must follow but for which we're challenged to piece the stories together as we go along.
Early in the book we sense that the apartment is the link between the two stories although that's not confirmed until much later in the story. We see the systemic betrayal of the Jewish people on mass in juxtaposition to a much more personal betrayal in Julia's life and we draw parallels between the lies people tell and why they tell them. Fortunately it's not all unmitigated misery - even in Sarah's story there are kind people who take risks to help her and in Julia's story she finds supporters in unlikely places. The horrors of Sarah's life in the Vel d'Hiv and the camps are made more vibrant by being placed alongside the every day life of modern-day Julia though in each case, the two are fighting for the lives of those they love.
The author Tatiana de Rosnay was born in France of mixed ancestry - a blend of British, French and Russian blood - but it's unclear why she chose to write about events that took place nearly two decades before her birth. On her website she tells readers that she wasn't taught about the Vel d'Hiv at school in France and sensed it was a taboo subject. In creating Julia Jarmond as an American living in Paris with a French husband and in-laws she has given her the voice of an outsider, someone who appears to be part of the establishment but isn't; someone able to move within Parisian life without ever fully being a part of it, knowing that to her in-laws and many others she will always be 'the American'. Perhaps this outsider perspective is needed for Julia to empathise with the little Jewish girl and to be sufficiently dissociated from the collective blindness of the local people who looked the other way when the French police rounded up the Jews.
Tatiana de Rosnay writes novels in both French and English but Sarah's Key was originally written in English - she could sense that the book needed a certain amount of separation from her French life. It has since been translated into more than 20 languages and made into a film starring Kristen Scott Thomas in the role of Julia which was released this summer.
This is not a book I'd have picked up if I saw it on the shelf. Yet again writing for Curiousbookfans has opened my eyes to a book that I'd have passed by on the cover design alone. It's not a genre I tend to go for and despite its heavy topic, it's a very easy read which I polished off quickly. I did feel the need to get to the end and put together all the pieces of the jigsaw that linked the lives of Sarah and Julia. I guess I made all the right 'noises' along the way - I was sad and horrified when I read about the treatment of the Jews, angry with Julia's husband Bertrand when he puts his needs ahead of hers, laughed in the rare moments when it seemed appropriate and rooted for Julia to 'do the right thing' every time she reached a turning point. I wouldn't read the book a second time but I will pass it on to a friend and I'll certainly be looking out for the film when it reaches my local cinema.
There's a phrase used in the book that bears repeating - it is 'Remember and Never Forget'. I think this is a book that readers will remember and most likely won't forget.
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Re-published to follow movie promotion by St. Martin's Griffin, July 2011
Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy and to Curiousbookfans.co.uk where an earlier version of this review appears.
I picked this up after a friend reccommended it to my online bookgroup and an author chat was arranged with her for later this month sometime. I had only a brief idea of what it was about but what I did know intrigued me enough to make me want to read more...
SARAH'S KEY is set during the second world war, in Paris, during the time of German Occupation. Ten year old Sarah lives with her younger brother, her mum and her dad in a small french apartment. Sarah and her family are Jewish. Sarah doesn't understand how this makes her different from everybody else but knows it means she has to wear a yellow star on her clothes when she has to go to school.
One day, French Gendarme knock at the door of their apartment looking for her father who is in hiding. Except its not just her father they are looking for. They also want to take Sarah and the rest of the family away as well. Thinking that they will be returning to the apartment in a few days, Sarah hides her younger brother away in a secret closet and locks him in with the promise that she will come back for him. But, taken first to the local stadium in a bus full of fellow Jewish families then to a holding camp for Jewish prisoners, it soon becomes apparent that Sarah has made a fatal error in judgement.
Years later, a journalist is researching a story about this dark day in French history when she finds links to her own family history. Suddenly, amidst personal turmoil and facing a crisis in her marriage, this american-born reporter, Julia Jarmond, finds herself becoming obsessive in her bid to discover what happened to Sarah and her family whilst, at the same time, highlighting the facts behind an event in history the French people would prefer to forget.
Alternating between first Sarah's then Julia's story before just reverting to Julia Jarmond (you'll see why when you read the book), this intriguing piece of fiction earns points for drawing your attention to a forgotten moment of history at the same time acting as a fitting tribute for all the Jewish children and their parents who were sent by French officals to their deaths at the concentration camps. Very careful not to allude blame at the French, the book is subtle in its subject matter; sometimes a little too subtle. The strongest elements are when we see the world through Sarah's eyes but unfortunately these are woefully short. Julia Jarmond struck me personally as something of a cold fish despite the author's attempts at the contrary but still the book is not without it's charm.
In fact, it is a very clever and entertaining read despite any faults it may possess. Tatiana de Rosnay seems very adept at spinning a yarn and has done a good job here of sharing her tale. Though her modern-day narrative is a bit detached, nonetheless the tale of what happens to Sarah after the war is as heart-warming as it is equally tragic in parts and the way we discover the missing pieces of the puzzle at the same time as Julia does is very stylishly done.
It's certainly enough to make me want to pick up something else of hers- provided that is, that it is as compulsive reading as SARAH'S KEY.
If you're looking for something in a similar vein to SEBASTIAN FAULK'S CHARLOTTE GREY, then you could do worse than look up a copy of this book published last year and available at varying prices at both Amazon, Ebay or other online book-selling retailers. Just don't expect anything as good as last year's THE BOOK THIEF, though this deals with a similar subject matter.
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is 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 re-evaluate her marriage and her life. "Tatiana de Rosnay" offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.