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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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel

Contemporary fiction
Harcourt Brace, 2001
326 pages  $16.00 

Sixteen-year-old Pi Patel, son of a zookeeper, is a boy of faith. He has embraced three religions—Catholicism, Islam, and Hindu—to the bewilderment of his secular family. The early part of his story concerns his search for faith; the latter part concerns a test of that faith.

When political upheaval urges Pi’s father to move the family from their native India to Canada, the story reaches its heart—and ours. The family’s shipboard passage is initially a sort of Noah’s ark adventure as the Patels transport their zoo animals to North America. But the adventure becomes desperate when Pi finds himself the sole human survivor in a lifeboat he shares with a Bengal tiger.

Here the Noah parallels end. While Martel suffuses the book with humor and wild, magical touches, this is no Disney tale of a boy and his tiger becoming best friends. Instead he explores how two species learn to survive together despite the fact that one is predator and the other, potential prey.

The book’s structure seems to allow for few surprises. Pi survives; this we know from the start. Though told in Pi’s “voice,” the book is based on a journalist’s interview of the adult Pi, years after the shipwreck. Yet like all great stories, the tension comes in the telling, not in the outcome. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window for the fifth time and still can’t help hiding your eyes. It is in the how of the survival that keeps us riveted: How will Pi feed himself? How will he feed the Bengal tiger without becoming the main course? How long will they be at sea, and will either suffer some grave and irrevocable damage? And, as the story becomes ever stranger and unbelievable, we begin to wonder: What’s really up with Pi?

Some reviewers have compared Martel’s book to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—the same singular purpose, the same lonely pursuit of the goal, the ever-present sea always the enemy. But in fact, Martel’s book is not only longer, it’s much more compelling. Hemingway presumed a fascination with his topic that the reader may not share; Martel grabs his readers by the lapels and compels them to look at and live this fascinating story. We can’t tear ourselves away from resourceful Pi, who, though faithful, is never passive. Instead he becomes the protector, even the god, of the small world within his control. Thus a religious sensibility never overwhelms the story, but rather breathes as the fabric and weave of every word.

This is a story to read and savor. It’s that rare sort of book that you race through to find out what happens, only to be disappointed that you’ve run out of pages. When I had nearly finished reading my library copy, I was sorely tempted to buy the book just to have it on my shelf as a kind of constant friend. I settled for buying it as a gift for someone else.