Thursday, 18 March 2010

Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)

--The blurb--
"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."

--The review--
Despite having written prolifically in French, Sarah's Key is, thus far, this bilingual author's only English novel (with the second English-language attempt being released later this year). Given the overall mediocre quality of French contemporary fiction, to have found an author whose English-language work proves an encouraging starting point for francophone readers is something that fills me with hope.

In truth, in picking up this particular find at the library, my expectations were not that high: on a topic that I already knew plenty about (the Holocaust, cf. my earlier comments on restrictive history curricula in British schools), the novel is short and with easy-to-read prose. I had consequently chosen it only as a "filler" companion to longer and more challenging library book choices. However, it proved itself to be utterly absorbing, not only thanks to de Rosnay's talents in terms of crafting characters and merging the stories of two parallel sets of characters with absolute fluidity, but also in terms of the novella's interesting approach, with its use of the roundup at the Vel d'Hiv at its centre. Despite the prevalent teaching of the Holocaust in schools, and despite there being an information board about the events that took place there at one of the metro stations that my train goes through each day, I had known nothing about the Vel d'Hiv prior to reading Sarah's Key, and I suspect that this might be the case for many other former history students, too.

Initially it is not clear how the two stories will intersect, but de Rosnay manages to bring the two together successfully, tying 21st-century France to wartime France as she goes. The characters are realistic and human, and the level of pathos that suffuses the novel does not detract from this, and nor does it make the Holocaust's events seem overly saccharine or martyrish. The overall tone is genuine and sincere, and though the novel's events do resolve themselves, this is not always done happily, and the overall message seems to be that it is our lives' principal crises (whether marital, in the case of Julia, or of a level of trauma of the first order, as in the case of Sarah, or otherwise) - or rather, how we deal with them - that can change the overall course of our lives.

The novella is at once concise, touching, accessible and definitive, and its organic rather than stylistic approach will appeal to a number of readers looking for something new. This introduction to Tatiana de Rosnay's work is a highly welcome one, and if you are a francophone reader, this also holds another inherent advantage: on your next trip to the library or bookshop, you will now at least be able to stray into the contemporary literature section and pick up something by this author without even the slightest hint of trepidation.

Other works by Tatiana de Rosnay
A Secret Kept (2010)

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