This is the last book in my mini collection of WWII books that I picked up at Costco recently, and after this tear-jerker I really don’t think that I could make it through another one right now. I loved, loved, loved this book but it comes with the warning of ‘read with tissues at hand’.
Title: Sarah’s Key
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: June 12, 2007
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Themes: WWII, Occupied France, Holocaust
Features: Author Q&A, Book Club Guide, Teaser for A Secret Kept
My Rating: 4.5/ 5
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.
I made the mistake of giving myself room to breathe after finishing this book instead of hammering out some thoughts right off the bat, and as a result the emotional gut-punch that was my reading experience quickly got swept up in he chaos of having an offer for the house that my partner and I were trying to buy falling through. The result is that I am coming back to this text more than a week and three novels later, with a nagging fear that I won’t give it the incredible review that it deserves.
Tatiana de Rosnay’s writing is beautiful and poignant, and I was immediately wrapped up in the worlds of Sarah and Julia and found myself equally invested in the outcomes of both. As someone who normally attaches to one character more than others, I found it amazing that I wasn’t rushing through one section in order to get to another. Instead, I was enthralled and found myself constantly pausing to consider the meaning of each passing event and what exactly it might mean in the grand scheme of things.
The split narration of Sarah and Julia worked beautifully in this novel. Right form the get-go it was clear that their stories were inextricably intertwined and that the decisions and events of the past can, and do, have ramifications for many generations. I felt too, that the apartment played as much of a role as Bertrand or Rachel. Although silent, it served as a cautious reminder that the objects and places around us bear witness to events that society has collectively elected to not remember. I found it shocking that so many of the locals encountered during Julia’s research knew so little about the events that had taken place in their towns, and that people rarely took the time to read the monuments and placards that they passed every day. It says a lot about how we ‘close our eyes’ to the parts of people and history that we would prefer not to remember or acknowledge, and I think that Sarah’s Key is so very effective in suggesting that those things we prefer to avoid are the very things that we should be looking at more closely.
The imagery in Sarah’s Key is absolutely breath taking. Everything from the streets of Paris to the horrors of Pithiviers, and from Sarah hiding in the potatoes to the moment when she unlocks the cupboard is fraught with emotion and clarity. I could picture every event as it unfolded, felt alongside the Sarah and Julia through their triumphs and heartbreaks, and found myself bawling uncontrollably on more than one occasion. I was surprised at how often beauty was found in the simplest of things through the eyes of child, and was thankful that not every moment was and foreboding. The moments of respite created a fast paced and engaging experience, and provided a beacon of hope in those moments where I thought I was might slam the book shut and put it in the freezer.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but you’d think when the inside cover states outright that Sarah locked her younger brother in closet in the midst of the Vel d’Hiv roundup that I would have had some sort of subconscious understanding that terrible things were inevitable. Seriously, we’re talking about genocide, concentration camps, and occupied France here – the good and positive things that came out of these occurrences were few and far between. And yet, de Rosnay’s writing was so engaging and her characters belief’s were so strong that I found myself hoping against hope for little Michel, rooting for Sarah, and ready to throw down with Bertrand to defend Julia.
The minute I finished reading, I immediately checked de Rosnay’s other novels to see if she’d followed up with a piece written from the point of view of a French police officer and their role in the events of the summer of 1942, as I thought there may have been a hint about a sequel. But, alas, it seems that no such book exists. Just saying though, I will be first in line on launch day to buy my copy if it ever gets written.
Would I recommend this book? Heck Yes! Not only is this a captivating and truly engaging read, the research and attention to detail really brings this story to life. Fair warning though, read with tissues close at hand… and probably not on public transit.
Up Next: Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham