Monday, March 16, 2009

Always remember. Never Forget.

Sarah's Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay

The message of Tatiana de Rosnay's new novel is never forget the atrocities of World War II. That very message is spelled out several times in the text. But it's hard to remember history that you've never learned, and a story you've never heard. De Rosnay's novel aims to rectify that for one dark event in France's history.

In July of 1942, thousands of Parisian Jews were rounded up in the middle of the night and corralled in the Vélodrome d'Hiver or the Vél' d'Hiv' for short. They were predominantly women and children, because many Jewish men had gone into hiding. After days of being kept in inhumane conditions and in fear for their lives, these families were shipped off to internment camps outside Paris, and eventually almost all were murdered in Auschwitz. For obvious reasons, this is not a proud moment in French history--because it wasn't even the Nazi's who did this. It was French police and French officials who perpetrated this crime. It is an event that is largely forgotten today. I, for one, had never heard of it.

The first half of the novel is broken into two narratives. One, set in 1942, is the story of 10-year-old Sarah. When the police come to her family's door, Sarah's 4-year-old brother Michael hides in a secret cupboard the two of them play in. They keep water and a flashlight in there, so Sarah lets Michael stay hidden in the locked cupboard. She pockets the key, assuming that they'll be returning in a few hours. She promises Michael that she'll be back soon.

In short alternating chapters, we are also following the story of American journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia's married to a Frenchman and has lived in Paris for more than half her life. She writes for a magazine for expatriates living abroad, and is assigned an article on the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups. Julia is unfamiliar with this event, but is quickly shocked by the extent that Parisians have whitewashed this unflattering event from their history. Not only do most not remember the events, but many people she talks to actively resist hearing about it. But, like a good journalist, Julia follows leads, meets the right people, and becomes very emotional about telling this story. Eventually, Julia realizes that this piece of forgotten history intersects with a part of her family-by-marriage's history. No one wants her to dig into the past, and when all the ghosts are eventually revealed, the responses of those whose lives are touched are fascinating.

It is no surprise that Julia's research intersects with Sarah's story. Eventually the two narratives merge into one story now being told from Julia's perspective. But much of the tension that keeps you turning pages quickly is your desperate desire, like Sarah's, to learn Michael's fate. However, that truly is not the whole novel. There is more to Julia Jarmond than just her role as a researcher. I felt that the novel had something to say about who the protagonists and who the villains are in the stories we live. Not just in times of war, but even in a marriage. Conflict is viewed from differing angles, and things are not as clear cut as you may initially think. Characters are depicted in shades of gray, which always makes for interesting reading.

I read this novel in a single day. It's hard to "enjoy" such a tragic story. I wondered at the way the author skipped back and forth in time so rapidly at the beginning of the book--back and forth, every few pages. But as the ordeal became more and more intense, and genuinely moving, I was grateful not to linger overly long in Sarah's world. Yes, the ending is a little cheesy, but this is a novel well worth reading. It's a compelling story, and one that should be remembered.

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