Lost in the world

Tatiana de Rosnay writes an intricate, compelling first novel set in occupied Paris during World War II.

October 25, 2007 11:28
sarah book 88 224

sarah book 88 224. (photo credit: )


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Sarah's Key By Tatiana de Rosnay St. Martin's 288 pages; $24.95 Tatiana de Rosnay, who lives in Paris and writes for French Elle, is also a literary critic for Psychologies magazine. This is her first novel, and it has already been translated into 15 languages. De Rosnay's work covers in a historically accurate fashion the events that occurred in occupied Paris during the summer of 1942. The French police, under the instructions of the Nazis, arrested 1,129 Jewish men, 2,916 Jewish women and more than 4,000 French-born Jewish children between two and 12 and imprisoned them in inhumane conditions in the Vel' d'Hiv', a famous indoor stadium, where they were brutally treated and then shipped to their deaths by fellow Frenchmen. These arrests were sanctified by the utter complicity of the French state, which even today seems to often choose silence rather than facing the ugliness of its own crimes. De Rosnay writes movingly about this French reticence to confront history and raises the reader's awareness about what a modern culture's moral responsibility is with regard to its effect on subsequent generations. She describes the contemporary French attitude as still pervasively repressed. She writes, "The French were closed up like clams. Nothing must be shown. Nothing must be revealed. Everything was to remain unruffled. Undisturbed. That's how it was. How it had always been..." Her description of modern French life keeps past and present isolated from each other, refusing integration, synthesis, mourning, catharsis, confession and, ultimately, any chance of redemption. The author tells two separate stories in alternate chapters that build tension and suspense yet never seem to commingle. Perhaps that is her point - the past and the future remain in parallel universes, never intersecting. On one hand, we learn the heartbreaking tale of an 11-year-old Jewish girl, Sarah, who upon hearing the French police come for her family, locks her four-year-old brother in a secret kitchen cupboard, planning to return for him later. By an uncanny set of circumstances, she escapes the death camps where her parents are murdered and returns to Paris to retrieve her brother, whom she finds dead in the same cupboard. The other story occurs in the present, and revolves around American-born journalist Julia Jarmond, who has spent the past 25 years in France. Assigned by her editor to research the infamous round-up of July 16, 1942, she plunges into a piece of French history she was unaware existed, and then forges on with her investigations, much to the chagrin of her arrogant French husband and in-laws, who consider her incessant probing crude and overly "American"; in short, in very bad taste. Julia's husband's family has been harboring a secret for more than 60 years. After the Jewish round-up, the family moved into an apartment vacated by a Jewish family, the one where little Sarah had lived and where her brother had died, and her husband's family has lived with this knowledge and guilt for decades, refusing to speak of it, even with each other. They hadn't asked any questions on moving into the flat and, like many of their French neighbors, simply turned a blind eye. When Julia finds out about Sarah's connection to her husband and the apartment in which he grew up, she becomes obsessed with finding out what befell Sarah after the war. De Rosnay is an innovative writer, and the pulsing style she adopts here is interesting. The chapters about Sarah and her Jewish family are mournful, in a distant and sad third person, as if the author admits her own inability to penetrate the pain. Her chapters about Julia Jarmond are in a more direct and approachable first person; it's the story of a modern busy woman living in France and raising a daughter. It's a full and lively life, yet one still full of nagging worries and regrets. There's her husband's indifference to her, and their inability to communicate except in bed, where their passion seems to explode against each other in some sort of angry dance. There is her continual heartache about his long-term affair with an old flame; one she isn't certain is over. There are her own palpable feelings of inadequacy about not being able to produce more than one child, the miscarriages she has suffered and her failure to produce a son. Her once-stunning looks are now fading as the tension with her husband and his chilly relatives mounts. Only her precocious daughter seems able to see through the mask she wears to conceal her growing disappointments. But the search for Sarah seems to energize her. As Julia continues to hunt for Sarah in an attempt to track down what happened after her traumatic return to Paris, she feels enlivened for the first time in ages. Her already tenuous marriage seems to snap under the pressure of her chase, and she is caught up in an odyssey she can't escape. What was once funny and charming about her husband no longer is. His condescending comments and distractedness irritate her, and the 45-year-old magazine writer finds herself riding an emotional merry-go-round of upheaval that forces her to question much of her own past thinking. Mostly, her thoughts swirl around Sarah. She wonders if the little girl made it into adulthood. Did she have children? How did she survive? Did she remain in France? Where is she? She calculates that Sarah would be around 70 now, and fantasizes about meeting her. She wants to tell her how sorry she feels. De Rosnay's Julia is multifaceted. She is not an entirely likeable figure, although she is accessible in her vanity and self-obsession, her insistence that those around her focus solely on her. With the exception of her husband, who seems by the force of his brunt personality able to keep her in the role of seductress and pleaser, most others seem to feel forced into following her escapades as if she is the only one worthy of star billing. And that is where this novel falters badly, because the reader has difficulty empathizing. We don't really understand her obsession with Sarah. What does she feel finding Sarah will accomplish? Why is it so important to her? Julia Jarmond's identity before her marriage remains almost blank, so we can't discern her deepest impulses and feel alienated from her. One gets an almost distasteful, vulgar feeling from Julia - which may be familiar to some of us Jews, particularly those of a secular bent. It is almost as if Julia seems to need the horrific stories of the Holocaust to feel a connection to something bigger than her own claustrophobic life. We feel as if we are witnessing her use Sarah, or Sarah's story, to fill the void within herself. So that Sarah, the little Jewish girl who lost her parents and her brother, becomes for Julia a possession of sorts, something created for her personal use. This seems to somehow erase Sarah rather than bring us closer to her.

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