Beverly Swerling's Reviews > Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
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Jun 12, 12

Read in June, 2012

I loved this book. First one in ages I have literally read in one go (stayed up half the night to finish). Tatiana de Rosnay is a fluid, fluent writer whose prose never gets in the way of her storytelling and in this, the only one of her books I have read, she is a superb storyteller. There are no pyrotechnics here, no imposition of authorly cleverness. That seems particularly appropriate since she is writing a tale of the Holocaust.

Given that fact this is, of course, a book filled with sadness and even horror, but I would tell anyone that they will nonetheless be very glad they have read it; indeed, that it supplies enormous reading pleasure. The secret to that is, I think, the fact that de Rosnay does not leave us in the depths of those terrible days of WWII. She simultaneously tells us the story of Sarah, a ten-year-old Parisienne Jew whom the French police arrest in a horrific act of collaboration with their Nazi occupiers,and of Julia, an American forty-something woman living in modern Paris with her adored French husband and their ten-year-old daughter.

The novel opens in 1942 with the French police coming to arrest Sarah and her family in a great round-up of the Jews of Paris. To keep him safe Sarah locks her four-year-old brother in a secret place in their apartment where the two children often retreat. Thinking she will be back shortly, Sarah brings with her the key to that hiding place. By the time her parents discover what she has done (they know about the cupboard and keep it supplied with a flashlight and water)it is too late. Sarah and her parents along with thousands of others have been incarcerated in a stadium known as the Vel d'Hiver. (Think everything you know about the misery of that sports arena in New Orleans during Katrina, then multiply it by a factor of about a hundred.) After days of indescribable deprivation, they are sent to French concentration camps from which the vast majority will be deported to Auschwitz and summarily gassed. (Sarah escapes that fate, though hers is to be no less cruel, and she is no less a victim of the paroxysm of hate that was the Shoa.)

In chapter two we are in the Paris of our own day and Julia and her husband Bertrand and their daughter Zoe are in an apartment in the Marais, a Paris neighborhood once known as the Jewish quarter. Though Bertrand's family is not Jewish, this apartment belonged to his grandmother; it is to be his and Julia's, after being remodeled by Bertrand's architectural firm. At the same time Julia, who works for an English language magazine published in Paris for American expats, is assigned to write an article about the now all but forgotten "incident" involving the Vel d'Hiv.

The apartment is the link between Julia and Sarah and their two very different lives, and for the first two thirds of the book both women tell their stories in the first person in strict chapter by chapter alternation. We hear Sarah's story while it is at the same time being discovered anew by Julia, who while she researches her article learns truths about her marriage and her family, and indeed herself, that will change her life.

In the final third of the book Sarah's voice is silenced. We do learn how her story ended, and what happened to her brother, but from Julia's point of view. This is a magnificent metaphor for the silence of the six million, whose tales can only be told by we who come after them. De Rosnay has used her novelist's skills to add one more coda to this ongoing journal of remembrance. Brava!

PS - added a few days later. I have just realized I said both segments of the book were written in the first person. Sarah's voice comes to us entirely from her point of view, but in the third person. That's a classic novelist's technique and very well handled by de Rosnay, but what an odd mistake for me to make so soon after finishing the novel. I think it indicates how intensely I experienced Sarah...

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