This is my review of Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay.
The atrocity of the “Vél d’Hiv”, or rounding up by the French police of Jewish women and children in Paris for transportation to Auschwitz was unknown to me before this book was recommended. The horror is compounded in this story by the “twist” that the young heroine, Sarah, too young to understand the situation, manages to lock her little brother in a cupboard “for his own safety” so that he is not part of the transportation. Much of the ensuing tension of the first part of the book rests on the question of whether she will be able to escape and if she will succeed in being reunited with her brother. The drama is intercut with a modern day thread: Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, married into a well-heeled and highly respectable Parisian family, is tasked to produce an article on the Vél d’Hiv. In the process, she discovers that her father-in-law grew up in the very apartment from which Sarah’s family was transported, and which her architect husband is “doing up” prior to moving there with her and their (somewhat irritatingly) precocious daughter Zoe. Julia’s growing sense of disquiet and preoccupation with the tragic events she is uncovering begin to affect her relationship with her husband, and her attitude to life. This is a story about issues of responsibility and guilt, and how these continue to blight – or transform positively – people’s lives into future generations. It also raises the question which polarises people: is it better to draw a line on the past and move on or can one only be whole when one has confronted traumatic events, even if the price is that one is permanently changed as a result?
I found this book a compulsive page-turner, and think it vital reading for young people or anyone who has never thought seriously about the holocaust. Whilst accepting that some may feel that too much has been written on the subject, this book covers a different aspect from usual – the guilt of those other than Germans under direct Nazi influence.
I understand the views of those who think that “making the story even more ghastly than it need have been” is distasteful, and that the romantic aspects of the modern story are a bit trite and sentimentalised. I do not find Julia’s husband Bertrand a totally convincing character, and Julia herself seems at times a bit over-emotional, self-absorbed and even selfishly thoughtless in the way she acts impulsively, keeping and breaking confidences on a whim -although all this is of course necessary to the story.
Although I cannot reveal the end, I thought on reflection that it was ironically the only logical one, rounding it off quite effectively. I read this in French, so cannot say how it would strike me in English. However, to the extent that I had such a strong urge to complete it, was moved by the plot, and will certainly remember it indefinitely, I cannot give it less than 4 stars