It’s 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month in 2011, and the church bells are tolling in Paris, commemorating Armistice Day and, the wars that followed the “war to end all wars.” I’ve recently read three novels set in France, each with ties to a world war.
The most compelling and haunting of the trio is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (St. Martin’s, 2007), which focuses light on the horrific round up Jewish families in Paris by the French police, who cooperated with the German SS. It was because the French police rather than the German soldiers came for these families that many felt they would return to their homes. Certainly that is how 10-year-old Sarah feels when her four-year-old brother refuses to budge from the hidden cabinet where they play when the awful knocking begins in the middle of the night. To keep him safe, Sarah locks the cabinet, taking the key with her. She and her parents are taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (the bicycle track for winter—located close to the Eiffel Tower), where they find other Jewish families and come to realize that they won’t be returning to their home. The panic that ensues for all three is enormous as they realize the possible fate of the little boy. They are deported and separated. Sarah manages to survive and eventually return to the apartment to find out what happened to her brother.
I admit that I have read so many Holocaust novels that it is difficult to read another about this awful period in our history. What made this novel slightly less painful is that the chapters move between the historic timeframe of 1942 and contemporary times when Julia Jarmond, a journalist, begins to learn of the earlier story through her in-laws, who gained occupancy of Sarah’s family apartment. Other French families occupied homes of the deported Jewish families quite soon after the evacuation. Julia finds the threads of Sarah’s story increasingly compelling and traces them from Paris to the United States to find out what happened to her. In the process, Julia makes important discoveries about her own life and her troubled marriage.
This was a difficult book for its heart-breaking subject but also one that was hard to put down. Both Sarah and Julia are sympathetic characters although there are moments when one wants to shake Julia and say get some backbone about that arrogant husband Bertrand who treats you like a doormat. It comes to a satisfying, if rather surprising, conclusion. This is, without a doubt, one of the best written books that came to my Road Works list as a result of the search to find good reads for the road.
It was not until the 1990s that this tragic event in French history was acknowledged as being the fault not only of Germans occupying Paris but also of those French who complied in the Vel d’Hiver Round-Up. President Chirac noted the shame of the country publicly and arranged for documents of those involved to be placed in the Shoah archives. The book has been dramatized in a film released in 2010 starring Kristin Scott-Thomas.
A couple of days ago, I happened upon a tower on Rue Etienne Marcel, which turned out to be a wonderful museum located in the remains of the medieval castle of Philip of Burgundy, La Tour Jean sans Peur. It was only because I was looking up that I noticed on an adjoining building a brass plaque that immediately resonated with me because of my exposure to Sarah’s Key, translated below:
To the memory of the students of this school deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were born Jews. Innocent victims of Nazi barbarity and with the complicity of the Vichy government, they were exterminated in the death campus.
140 children lived in the 2nd arrondissement.
3 April 2004 Never forget.
The intersection of traveling and reading can occur at the most unexpected moments. Just as I was taken aback to find the plaque commemorating the children lost from the school, I had a similar reaction on the rue du Louvre at a sign advertising a detective agency. Only a few pages earlier in the day, I had read about Amie Leduc’s detective agency on the same street in Cara Black’s 1999 thriller Murder in the Marais. In this mystery, Leduc will at one point be hanging on the sign to enter her office safely from the exterior. Surely the author has integrated this real place into her fictional story!
Given that the novel is set in the historically Jewish neighborhood of the Marais, it was not a surprise that it has some similarities to Sarah’s Key even if the mystery-thriller is not in the same genre. The murders occurring in contemporary Paris are also linked, in part, to the Vel d’Hiver Round-Up of 1942. Although Aimee’s usual detective beat centers on computer security, she is pulled into a murder investigation when hired by Temple E’manuel. The elderly woman victim is found with a swastika carved in her forehead. Before she died, the woman said, “Ne les oublions jamais,” never forget. Aimee must untangle political intrigue, long-lost lovers, war crimes, and neo-Nazi organizations to solve the puzzle. She works in tandem with a clever and endearing partner, Rene, who is a technology-whiz and a dwarf and who has a terrific customized car.
The novels offers lots of specific locations like the Victor Hugo Museum and Les Halles that readers can physically visit while on the road. While this debut novel is not as sophisticated as Sarah’s Key nor are all of the plot moves entirely believable, it was still an enjoyable read.
In terms of real addresses 13, Rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro (2011) is truly an address that can be located in Paris, quite close to the Jardin de Palais Royal. It is here that the author grew up and actually came to be in possession of a box of mementos owned by a neighbor, Louise Brunet, a woman who died without heirs. Shapiro calls the box a “sepulcher of her heart,” and cleverly weaves from its contents a fictional tale. (The contents of the box can be viewed at this website: http://www.13ruetherese.com/; readers can also use their smartphones to scan the QR codes at the back of the novel.) As with the other two novels in this Road Works blog, this one, too, travels back and forth in time. The fictional Louise loses her first love, a cousin, in the trenches of World War I. She enters a loveless marriage, but an affair with a neighbor brings out her innate sensuality.
Louise’s story is uncovered by an American academic, who discovers the box in the office where he is housed as a guest faculty member. It has been placed there by the department secretary, Josianne Noireau. Trevor Stratton, the professor, is the first visitor to take the bait. He cannot resist following up on the various clues that the box offers, and in doing so, his own romantic interests blossom.
This novel was yet another good read although I must admit that I had a hard time getting past the conceit of the work, focusing on the fact that the author truly did find this box and used its contents to develop an interesting novel. On page 179, Louise is noting “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1928,” just as today, I am doing the same. It is these convergences between fiction and reality that sends shivers down a reader’s spine and what makes Road Works such a worthy endeavor.