Sarah’s Key

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Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay, book reviewSarah’s Key tells the story of an event in Paris during the Second World War and how it changed the lives of many, both directly and indirectly involved at the time and for many decades later. It’s not a book I would expect to sell well in France because it quite literally opens the cupboard and rattles the skeletons that many would prefer to leave firmly locked away. It is a look at the shame of a nation summed up with the word ‘collaboration’.

Paris in July 1942 was a city under occupation. The Jewish population had already been marked with the yellow stars on their clothes which were the standard branding of the Nazi regime. In an apartment a family receive a feared but expected knock at the door and know that the time has come to leave. A man with a list – a French policeman – tells them to go and pack enough things for a couple of days away. The son is in the bedroom and refuses to leave, telling his sister he will hide in their special place – a space behind the walls where nobody will know that he is there. She tells him she’ll be back for him soon, turns the secret lock and leaves him behind.

The family are taken to the ‘Velodrome d’Hiver’ or as it will become known, the Vel d’Hiv. Thousands are crammed into the space without sanitation, food or water. People die, some commit suicide, others go quickly mad from their incarceration. The imprisoned are then sent off to holding camps outside Paris where the children are separated from their parents and the parents are sent away by train. The authorities have misjudged the impact of a camp full of children – there’s no care, little food, the children become like animals and are riddled with lice. They will eventually be sent to be sent off by train with other adults because nobody wants the French public to see a train full of children or it will be clear that the lies of sending people to work camps cannot be true. The girl escapes and tried to find her way back to her brother.

It’s easy to think that there can’t be much more to be written about the Second World War, that this is just standard fare for what the Nazis did and that it happened over and over again in many different countries. Some people seem to suffer Holocaust fatigue and to want to consign the horrors to history. The difference which makes the Vel d’Hiv Round Up, incarceration and subsequent deportation to the death camps so shocking is that it was not the work of the Nazis. The entire thing was masterminded and carried out by the French and so takes on the status of something that can’t just be blamed on the Germans.

“I think Sarah’s Key is a book that readers will remember and most likely won’t forget.”

Sixty years pass and an American-born journalist Julia Jarmond is given an assignment to write about the 60th Anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv Round-Up. It’s not something she or her British photographer colleague have heard about and it’s soon clear that people don’t want to talk and her French husband is angry and wants her to leave well alone. When Julia realises that an apartment owned by her husband’s family which is soon to become her home is one which the family moved into just a couple of weeks after the Round-Up, her assignment takes on a personal importance. As part of her research she tracks down the name of the family who lived there before her in-laws and becomes determined to learn about what happened to them, particularly the young girl Sarah.

Her research for her assignment and her search for the girl bring her into conflict with her husband, sees her finding an unexpected ally in her father-in-law and leads her to travel thousands of miles in search of Sarah and her story. Along the way she uncovers shocking events and reveals multiple secrets that have been kept for many years.

The book presents the two stories of the young girl and the journalist in parallel, skipping back and forth over the intervening 60 years until we reach the point at which Sarah’s story stops and we continue only with Julia’s and are left to wonder what happened next. Early in the book we sense that the apartment is the link between the two stories although that’s not confirmed until much later in the story. We see the systemic betrayal of the Jewish people in juxtaposition to a much more personal betrayal in Julia’s life and draw parallels between the lies people tell and why they tell them. Fortunately it’s not all unmitigated misery – even in Sarah’s story there are kind people who take risks to help her and in Julia’s story she finds supporters in unlikely places. The horrors of Sarah’s life in the Vel d’Hiv and the camps are made more vibrant by being placed alongside the every day life of modern-day Julia though in each case, the two are fighting for the lives of those they love.

The author Tatiana de Rosnay was born in France of mixed ancestry – a mix of British, French and Russian blood – but it’s unclear why she chose to write about events that took place nearly two decades before her birth. On her website she tells readers that she wasn’t taught about the Vel d’Hiv at school in France and sensed it was a taboo subject. In creating Julia Jarmond as an American living in Paris with a French husband and in-laws she has given her the voice of an outsider, someone who appears to be part of the establishment but isn’t; someone able to move within Parisian life without ever fully being a part of it, knowing that to her in-laws and many others she will always be ‘the American’. Perhaps this outsider perspective is needed for Julia to empathise with the little Jewish girl and to be sufficiently dissociated from the collective blindness of the local people who looked the other way when the French police rounded up the Jews.

Tatiana de Rosnay writes novels in both French and English but Sarah’s Key was originally written in English – she could sense that the book needed a certain amount of separation from her French life. It has since been translated into more than 20 languages and made into a film starring Kristen Scott Thomas in the role of Julia which should have been released in the UK during the last few days.

This is not a book I’d have picked up if I saw it on the shelf. Yet again writing for Curiousbookfans has opened my eyes to a book that I’d have passed by on the cover design alone. It’s not a genre I tend to go for and despite it’s heavy topic, it’s a very easy read which I polished off quickly. I did feel the need to get to the end and put together all the pieces of the jigsaw that linked the lives of Sarah and Julia. I guess I made all the right ‘noises’ along the way – I was sad and horrified when I read about the treatment of the Jews, angry with Julia’s husband Bertrand when he puts his needs ahead of hers, laughed in the rare moments when it seemed appropriate and rooted for Julia to ‘do the right thing’ every time she reached a turning point. I wouldn’t read the book a second time but I will pass it on to a friend and I’ll certainly be looking out for the film when it reaches my local cinema.

There’s a phrase used in the book that bears repeating – it is ‘Remember and Never Forget’. I think this is a book that readers will remember and most likely won’t forget.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Re-published to follow movie promotion by St. Martin’s Griffin, July 2011
Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.
You can see the trailer of the movie Sarah’s Key with Kristen Scott Thomas here

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Sarah's Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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