Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sarah's Key

As I mention in previous weeks, I truly enjoy war time stories, for they are a true testimony to the strength of the human heart. This weeks book, Sarah's Key, written by Tatiana de Rosnay, is an elegiac, imaginative, and extraordinary novel, inspired by actual events during World War II and the Holocaust. Written with eloquence and empathy, de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

July 1942 marked a dark period in the history of France where thousands of Jewish families were rounded up and forcibly kept in the Velodrome d'Hiver. They were then sent off to transit camps in France such as Drancy, before being packed off to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. What is so unnerving about this whole incident is that the rounding up and mobilization of Jews for deportation was done by the French authorities. Haunting and suspenseful, life-affirming and beautiful, crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, this book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

Based upon this seldom mentioned, little known piece of French history, author Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a well-written novel that intertwines the past in 1942, and the present. Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Parisian girl born to Jewish parents, is captured in the round-up of June 16, 1942, and imprisoned with almost 10,000 others in an indoor cycling arena, the Vélodrome d'Hiver, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz. When the police arrive, she has just time to hide her younger brother in a concealed closet in their apartment, locking him in and promising to return when it was safe.

Sixty years later, we are introduced to writer Julia Jarmond, a transplanted American married to an arrogant and unfaithful Frenchman. Julia is assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups, and is struck by the fact that the round-up and subsequent disposal was carried out by ordinary French policemen, enabled by a citizenry that for the most part looked the other way. As she digs deeper, she uncovers dark secrets surrounding her husband's family which are connected to the deportations of Jews from France, but defiantly resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10 year old Sarah and four year old Michel. As the truth emerges, the author deftly handles the question of guilt caused by suppressed secrets and how the truth can sometimes not only bring about pain and disrupt the regularity of life, yet also have the ability to heal and move forwards into the future.

"...the end of summer that lingered on, the fading heat, the dust, the stealthy minutes that oozed by with the laziness of molasses." The pages of Sarah's Key were filled with succulent descriptions and profound imagery, making it effortless to form detailed pictures in my mind of the characters and places. The method employed by the author, which alternates between the past and the present is an effective tool, for it ties both periods together and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. At the half-way point, however, de Rosnay is forced to give up Sarah's direct narrative, telling her story solely through what Julia is able to discover about her. This left me a little disappointed, for I was so intrigued and captivated by Sarah's story, and I longed to know more about her life after the Vél' d'Hiv.

Sarah's story may be merely a variant on the Holocaust narrative often told before, but its child's-eye viewpoint gives it a moving authenticity. Especially touching are the glimpses of individual concern and kindness among the general indifference of the French people; the novel honors those unsung heroes who put aside their fear to help in individual ways.

Told with remarkably unsparing, unsentimental prose, through a lens so personal and intimate, this novel is shocking, profoundly moving and morally challenging story. It beautifully conveys Julia's conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah's trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.

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