Sunday, 2 October 2011

A Secret Kept (Tatiana de Rosnay)

--The blurb--
"It all began with a simple seaside vacation, a brother and sister recapturing their childhood. Antoine thought he had the perfect surprise for his sister Mélanie's birthday: a weekend by the sea at Noirmoutier Island, where the pair spent many happy childhood summers playing on the beach. But the island's haunting beauty triggers more than happy memories; it reminds Mélanie of something unexpected and deeply disturbing about their last island summer. When, on the drive home to Paris, she finally summons the courage to reveal what she knows to Antoine, her emotions overcome her and she loses control of the car. Alone, waiting for news of Mélanie, Antoine reflects on his life: his wife has left him, his teenage children are strangers to him, his job bores him, and his father is an ageing tyrant who still poisons every aspect of his life. How did he end up here? And, more importantly, what was the secret that his sister wanted to tell him?"

--The review--
Having enjoyed de Rosnay's debut, Sarah's Key (which sells in France as Elle S'Appelait Sarah), I was pleased to see her second novel, A Secret Kept (sold under the title of Boomerang in France) available in "livre de poche" (books in France are absurdly expensive for about a year before being released in this format). I therefore gave up my €6,95 and settled down to read it. Initially, though, I was disappointed by there being too many sexual references for my liking (do I really want to read about penises during my commute? Really?) - which, moreover, seemed to be there for no real purpose other than to shock - and by the amount of name-dropping of contemporary products (iPods and Facebook both feature - is this really obligatory to sell books these days?). The protagonist's relationship with his sister also seemed strange, with a few too many comments on her physical appearance than it would seem normal for a big brother to make.

In addition, de Rosnay does not adopt the male voice with 100% success. We know it is a female writing, which perhaps clouds our perceptions, but even without knowing this, I'm not sure that anyone would believe completely in Antoine's persona. We get the feeling that de Rosnay is projecting very female concerns and depth of self-analysis onto a male narrator, when in reality, most men are probably not as brooding and are more straightforward. Eventually, the novel becomes less about Antoine's relationship with sister Melanie and more about his relationship with lover Angele, which would be fine were it not for the totally unrealistic manner of them getting together, and were it not for the fact that the development of this romantic relationship is apparently at the expense of the loose ends of Antoine and Melanie's story being tied up.

Do not, either, read this book for a realistic portrayal of life in Paris: it's all plush 16th-arrondissement apartments with concierges. I have not yet found a book set at grassroots level in Paris, rather than just telling Anglophone readers what they think they want to hear about the city (perhaps I should write one?!).

However, there are some redeeming features, even though the story doesn't have the same pace and flawlessness of Sarah's Key (there are episodes in A Secret Kept that don't seem to be there for any real reason). We believe in the characters of Melanie, Clarisse and Blanche, as well as those of Antoine's children and ex-wife (although here, too, we are led up the garden path with ex-wife Astrid's relationship with Serge, which is never fully explored or resolved). The author's strength is in plot, with the accident not being the whole story but a catalyst that takes us into a journey spiralling down into Antoine and Melanie's family history. We also have a brief dalliance with a possible murder mystery as we are forced to question whether the death of Clarisse is really a tragic accident, or something more, and with this as bait, combined with other family happenings and the more intriguing vicissitudes of Antoine's burgeoning relationships with his children, de Rosnay draws us in and keeps us there.

The title under which it is sold in France, though - Boomerang - seems far more appropriate, as the story is not so much about a secret being kept but the unveiling of it. The notion of one's family history coming back to you and being discovered therefore seems better expressed under the French title. In spite of the novel's numerous imperfections, it proved an enjoyable but easy read - even if, like many other reviewers, I could not resist the temptation to compare it to the perfection of Sarah's Key.

Other works by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah, 2007)
The House I Loved (Rose, 2012) 

2 comments:

Ceska said...

The French's involvement in the Holocaust is rarely talked about as far as I recall in both school and politics, yet this book takes you into the poignant experience of a French Jewish girl and her family. The pain and suffering they endured for being Jews was astonishing. It was a real eye opener for me and a lesson that I will never forget.

Bianca said...

You're actually commenting on the wrong book, Ceska! This one is by the author of Sarah's Key, but is totally different. I actually reviewed Sarah's Key here: http://biancasbookblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/sarahs-key-tatiana-de-rosnay.html . If you wish to leave your comment there as well I'll happily publish it in the correct place.

Thanks for stopping by!

Bianca