Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Powerful, beautiful, and so, so, sad.

I feel I have to begin as the author did: Although the characters in this book are entirely fictitious, many of the events described from 1942 are not.

Sarah's Key tells us the story of two different women. The first, Sarah, but known only as "the girl" for 3/4 of the book, is 10 years old,living during the 1942 Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv. The second, a 45 year-old American journalist, Julia Jarmond, living in Paris in the year 2002.

July 16, 1942. Paris
. Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv. In German-occupied France, during the early morning hours, the French police went door to door rounding up Jews. They were taken to the VĂ©lodrome d'Hiver , where they stayed for days in horrific conditions. Some never made it out of there, but the rest were then taken to one of three camps before being sent on to Auschwitz. The roundup accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 Jews sent from France to Auschwitz in 1942, of whom only 811 came home at the end of the war. Of the French taken to the Vel' d'Hiv, there were over 4,000 children. This is the part of the story that was fact.

May 2002. Paris. On the 60th Anniversary of the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv, Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article for the magazine for which she works. Maybe it is because she was born and raised in Massachusetts, but Julia had never heard of the Vel' d'Hiv. Through her investigation she becomes engrossed in the tale of one family, specifically of a little girl named Sarah. Eventually, Julia uncovers family secrets that intertwine her own family with the Girl's, prompting her to reevaluate her life, her country, and even her marriage.

Tatiana de Rosnay beautifully slides between 1942 and 2002, as she tells the stories of Julia and the girl. We know their stories will come together eventually, but we're never really sure of how until we're upon it.

Whenever I read a book about the Holocaust, I find myself shaking with anger and frustration. How did this happen? How come no one stopped it? How could no one know? How could people look away and pretend it wasn't happening? How come they didn't fight back? How come no one fought back for them? This story of the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv had me wanting to scream these questions out loud to the people of 1942. The French, obviously too proud or embarrassed to have this happen in the heart of Paris, were as guilty as the Gestapo. The French memorials and newspapers had placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Nazis ever since, but it wasn't until 1995, when Jacques Chirac gave a speech, he said it was time for France to face up to its past and the role the state played in the persecution of the Jews.

I have read reviews of Sarah's Key that criticized the role of Julia Jarmond in the book, and I wanted to address my own feelings on the subject. The critics wanted to read more about Sarah and less about Julia's seemingly mundane problems in the 21st century. I believe there were two key reasons for Julia's role in this book. The first is to give the reader a break from Sarah's horrific experience - without it, the book may have been too hard to bear. It's one thing to read a book about the Holocaust, but to read it from a child's perspective tears your heart into pieces. The second reason I believe Julia's role is necessary is to shine a spotlight on how the national denial of guilt still remained in France for 60 years. The stubborn, pompous attitude of Julia's husband may not have been the nicest way to depict the French, but his and his family's indifference to the roundup of 1942 was part of the problem then and remained a part of the problem now.

As Elie Wiesel said in 1986: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

The girl in Sarah's Key was the first to hear the banging on the door in those early morning hours, but she believed, as I'm sure many children did, that since it was the French and not the German police, she was safe. "If they are French, they will not harm us."

As awful as this roundup was, all of those children being led to their deaths, the French maintained that sometimes it is better to forget, "sometimes it is better not to know". If there ever was someone who wanted to scream at this attitude, it is Tatiana de Rosnay. For the French, for the children, she wrote Sarah's Key. She grabbed my heart on the first page and did not let go. Through tears, I read this book and could not put it down. It has been a long time since a book has been so powerful to move me this way. I will pass this book on until the binding falls apart.

Book Extras:
To read more about Sarah's Key, visit the Macmillan website.
Visit the author's website here.

Watch Tatiana de Rosnay talk about Sarah's Key:

About the book:
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (September 30, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0312370849
ISBN-13: 978-0312370848

About the Author:
Tatiana de Rosnay is the author of ten novels, including theNew York Times bestselling novel Sarah’s Key, an international bestselling sensation with over two million copies sold in thirty-five countries worldwide. Together with Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson, she was named one of the top ten fiction writers in Europe in 2009. Tatiana lives with her husband and two children in Paris, where she is at work on her next novel.


Diane said...

I've read several good reviews, and hope to read this someday, but just too sad, I think, for now. Great review.

Elisabeth said...

Alison - You make some great points re: Julia's story and the importance of showing how contemporary French feel about this mark on their history. I liked this book, but didn't love it because I felt the ending was too trite which then undermined the poignancy of the Sarah's story. But, as usual, great review.

Alison (Alison's Book Marks) said...

Diane -- yes, it was sad. You have to be in the right frame of mind to read any book about the Holocaust.

Elisabeth -- This was one of those books where the author paints herself into a corner. There really is no graceful way to exit a story like this.

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