J M Leitch's Reviews > Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
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's review
Mar 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: book-club

This book exposes the round-up of Jewish families in Occupied France that took place on 16 July 1942 at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor stadium in the heart of Paris. Given ten minutes to pack up a few personal possessions, they were forced out of their homes and taken by bus to Vel’d’Hiv’ to be locked up there in shocking insanitary conditions with scarcely any food. Days later they were marched to board buses for a station from where they were transported by train, in cattle wagons, to holding camps outside Paris.

Here the men were separated from the women and after some days, the women and children were ordered into a shed where they were forced to hand over all their money and jewellery. Next the children were torn away from their mothers who, three weeks after their arrest were shipped out, with the men, to the gas chambers in Poland. Starving and filthy, some time later the children were also sent to their deaths with other adults - strangers - in an effort to cover up the truth about what really happened.

The most shocking part of this gruesome odyssey is that it was French officials who planned and coordinated the exterminations.

The novel opens with two parallel stories. The first is about Sarah Starzynski, a girl of ten years old arrested during the roundup, who locks her four-year-old brother in a secret cupboard when the police burst in, telling him she will come back for him later. The second is about Julia Jarmond an American journalist, married to a Frenchman, who is writing a story for the sixtieth commemoration of the Vel’d’Hiv’. During her investigation Julia finds a connection between the families and the women’s two stories meld into one.

I began by being captivated by this book. De Rosnay’s descriptions of the round-up were heart-wrenching and powerful, and the skilful way she unfolds Julia’s background and relationship with her eleven-year-old daughter Zoe, her French husband, and his family was masterful. I’m not very keen on alternate chapters set in different times and/or focusing on different characters, in my opinion that technique has been overdone, but de Rosnay handled it seamlessly.

She brought to life the nightmare the Jews were forced to suffer as a result of the Vel’d’Hiv’; the mixed emotions of the French people involved, some guilty, others shameful, others indifferent, others fearful, others barbaric, and yet others brave enough to risk their own lives; and exposed the fact that few people, French or other nationalities, are aware just how responsible French authorities and individuals were for these atrocities.

I was just thinking that this could be one of the best books I’d ever read when, on page 169, it began to fall to pieces. It was a stretch for me to believe that Edouard, Julia's father-in-law, looked through the contents of his father's safe so quickly after he died that he didn't see the file with Sarah's name on it - especially since the author tells us how much he wanted to find out his father had kept their contact alive. Then Zoe, wise and mature for eleven, starts acting and speaking out in such a mature way it’s just not believable, and I didn’t buy how Julia found Sarah’s family with such little effort or how they were all so willing and eager to talk to her.

I also thought de Rosnay’s style deteriorated too. Her use of so many rhetorical questions; adverbs that did nothing to add to the meaning; short, incomplete sentences and sentences beginning with conjunctions, irritated me. I wasn’t sure if she’d been doing this all along and I’d been so swept up in the story I hadn’t noticed, or if the editing wasn’t as tight for the last third of the book.

All this added up to the story loosing its momentum and credibility for me, and I was very disappointed that what had started out as a strong and moving read lost steam, lost intensity and fizzled out. Because of its strong beginning I am awarding it four stars.

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