” Sarah. She never left me. She had changed me, forever. Her story, her suffering, I carried them within me. I felt as if I knew her. I knew her as a child. As a young girl . . .” (278)
Sarah’s Key is a novel pit against the backdrop of a momentous event in France—a shameful, dark bit of history the French rather not talk about. Known as the Vélodrome d’hiver in 1942, it was indeed the darkest hour in France’s involvement in the Second World war, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested by the French police and later sent to interim camps in Parisian suburbs, before their final destination, Auschwitz. More horrifying is there was no selection process for the children after they were separated from their families; they were sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival of Auschwitz.
But de Rosnay spares much of the atrocities. Set in 2002, an American journalist living in Paris, Julia Jarmond, is writing a piece for the 60th commemoration of the Vélodrome d’hiver. Her research stumbles onto secrets that her husband’s family had tried to conceal for sixty years. Running parallel to Julia’s modern day story is that of 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski, whose family in 1942 was taken by the French police to the detention center at Vélodrome d’hiver. Her parents had never told Sarah the nature of the anti-Semitic threat but acting on instinct, Sarah hides her 4-year-old brother in the cupboard (their hiding place) and promises she will be back for him. And needless to say, she never comes back. And Julia Jarmond’s husband’s grandparents happened to move into the apartment vacated by the Starzynskis. This tragedy links the two families—and the two stories collide in modern-day Paris.
The book doubtless raises many themes and moral questions revolving this overlooked historical event. The most contesting theme is raise awareness vs. leave the past alone. The need to reconcile with the past is in constant battle against the call for healing. It touches on the meaning of loyalty. mercy and betrayal. Can a choice made out of love ever be wrong? That all said, the book is underwhelming in terms of the scarce characterization of Sarah and her family. The novel begins with the roundup so Sarah is a void. The short chapters are also jarring. They read like as if de Rosnay doesn’t want to delve too deep. The overall writing is pedestrian at best, especially in Julia’s story, which hobbles to its end in chapters full of awkward and run-on sentences. I suppose poor writing is often overlooked (or even tolerated) when it comes to a book that delves into a sensitive subject matter.
293 pp. St. Martin Griffin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | Books, Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Holocaust, Literature, Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay, Vélodrome d'hiver