Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Genre: Historical/ Contemporary
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Blurb (taken from Goodreads): Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.
Why I read it:
A friend gave this to me years ago and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. I figured now would be a good time to get around to it!
Thoughts:The historical framework underlying Sarah’s Key is grim. It concerns the 1942 Vel D’Hiv roundup, where French policemen arrested over 13,000 Jewish familes in Paris. Women & children made up most of the detainees (a lot of men had gone into hiding, but expected their families to be safe). Confined in a large velodrome for the better part of a week, police later shipped their victims off to concentration camps. Most were gassed at Auschwitz. Before reading this novel, I’d never even heard of the incident (although I’m neither French nor a historian, so perhaps that’s not surprising). Either way, it’s unbelievably horrible – although the book itself is quite good.
Most of the novel shifts between two viewpoints. The first is Sarah’s: a sheltered 10-year-old Jewish girl, who gets arrested by French police at the start of the novel. However the main character is really Julia - an American journalist living in Paris, a woman working on an article to mark the sixtieth commemoration of the Vel D’hiv incident.
Sarah’s story is harrowing. When the police pound at the door in the night, she locks her 2-year-old brother in a cupboard to protect him. (You can probably work out what happens next. It’s not pretty.) However, Sarah doesn’t understand what’s happening as the authorities spirit her away; her parents never explained the political reality of the day, to her extreme detriment. I thought it was a pity she was so ignorant. As a teacher, I know kids that age can have surprising insight… although I also realise it would be an extremely awkward conversation.
Julia’s story is interesting enough. I didn’t really care about her failing marriage, but her relationship with her daughter (much more open than the one Sarah had with her parents) and her life as an expat in Paris were fascinating. I’ve never lived in Paris, but I’ve passed through there quite a lot, and the city seemed incredibly well-described. The throw-away comments about bakeries, tourists, the different arrondissments and expat magazines all rang true – although I did think Tatiana de Rosnay overused italicised French words occasionally. I speak the language so it wasn’t a problem for me, but other readers might find it frustrating.
The only other thing that bothered me about this book (aside from the fact I was reading a print copy!) were the very short chapters, and the fact that Sarah’s and Julie’s stories are told in different fonts. I found it jarring at first, but as the stories progressed I soon stopped noticing. So only a minor quibble…
Overall? This was an easy-to-read (and occasionally devastating) novel. I really enjoyed it.