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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay

Contemporary/Historical Fiction
St. Martin’s Press, 2007
320 pages  $13.95

On the nights of July 16 and 17, 1942, French police rounded up over 12,000 Jewish citizens and brought them to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. After a few days, these Parisians—over four thousand of them children under the age of 13—were deported to holding camps outside the city. From there, parents and children were separated, shipped to Auschwitz, and killed in the gas chambers.

This incident is known as La Grande Rafle (“The Great Raid”) du Vél d’Hiv. It is one of several wartime incidents that brought such shame to Frenchmen that it was not openly acknowledged for 50 years. Finally, President Jacques Chirac admitted to the responsibility of the Vichy government in a commemorative speech in 1995.*

These events form the backdrop of Tatiana de Rosnay’s startling novel Sarah's Key. Ten-year-old Sarah is arrested by French police on July 16; but before she is taken, she hides her younger brother in a secret cupboard, promising she will come back for him. Her story is juxtaposed with that of Julia, a modern-day American journalist investigating the Vél d’Hiv atrocities as her marriage to a Parisian begins to crumble.

With two such riveting stories—Sarah’s race to save her brother and Julia’s obsession to uncover her story—it is hard to find fault. This is a book that can be swallowed nearly whole. De Rosnay creates engaging characters, even if they seem a bit stereotypical. (The charming yet philandering French husband and the grouchy but good-hearted managing editor come to mind.) Complex, guilt-wracked Edouard, who was a boy in 1942 Paris, is endearing, and Sarah’s grit comes across as genuine, not some Anne Frank-wannabe. The novel’s problems lie mostly in its prose; de Rosnay has a better gift for plot than for the turn of a phrase. The Holocaust is such well-trod ground that, shockingly, we all know what to expect, even if the events are all new to the characters themselves. It requires a deft writer to avoid stereotypes and melodrama, and de Rosnay sometimes comes up short.

On the other hand, the Vél d’Hiv story is largely unknown, which makes this novel relevant even now. The author gives the facts as they happened, inserting her characters into the action, and our hearts race along with theirs. It is a story to cry over, an unbelievable chapter in our collective humanity’s history. Strange that it has become fodder for fiction, for entertainment. But we come to the end of Sarah’s long journey not exactly entertained, but brought up short, astounded and horrified once again. Why dredge up these darkest moments in our past? It is because the darkness lingers still among us, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Darfur. We cannot afford to forget.

*With thanks to for historical information on the incidents at Vélodrome d’Hiver.


  1. The book is beautifuly written and the alternating stories of Sarah's childhood horrors with the present day story of forty-five year old Julia is mesmerizing. I am not going to discuss the plot -- many reviewers of this book have magnificantly already done so.
    Sarah's Key grabbed a hold of me and the devastating story of the destruction of an innocent child and her family in a way that no other holocaust book has ever done. I knew about the Velodrome d'Hiver from previous books -- but the horrific and sadistic action of the French police during the round-up of Jewish families on July 16, 1942 was new information.

    1. I agree. It's one of those books that's hard to forget.