Monday, September 05, 2011

Book review: Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Not understanding the danger of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, Sarah locks her younger brother in a cabinet until she can return to release him later that day. She is then held captive with her parents, a few thousand adults and an astounding 4,000 children in the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium for days. From there men are separated from women, women from children, and each group is sent eventually on toward Auschwitz. Sarah is haunted by guilt and worry for her brother--this compounds the farther she gets from home. Sarah's story is interwoven with that of Julia Jarmond, a modern journalist seeking answers about Sarah as she tries to redefine her own life.

It's interesting how books find their way to you; the timing of the thing can matter a whole lot. Just a few weeks ago I finished Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky's novel about Nazi occupied France. Last night I finished Sarah's Key, a fictionalized account of a little girl whose family was caught up in the very real Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Jews by French police in July of 1942. At the time I read Suite I was surprised by its occasionally positive depiction of French feelings for their Nazi occupiers. As I said in my review, I suppose no one brush can be used to paint any human experience; no generalization holds true all the time. Also, though Suite's author, Nemirovsky, was Jewish herself (and ultimately died at Auschwitz), the book seemed glaringly absent mention of French anti-Semitism or complicity in the fates of Jews. It bears mentioning, here, that Suite was only several parts of an imagined five-part piece, ostensibly one which would have included a more complete picture had the author's life not ended tragically.  But it was a strange omission.

For that reason it's interesting to have read Sarah's Key so close to Suite. Sarah's Key is compelling because of its subject matter, but it is not on the same level with Suite Francaise when it comes to writing. I was unfamiliar with the Vel d'Hiv, and if the book is to be believed, so are most people. The book looks at French complicity then and French indifference to the past now.  For that reason I find it interesting, too, that it was written by a French author.

This book held my attention and was a quick read; I can't say it was a masterful work of prose, though. I was much more invested Sarah's narrative than that of the journalist. It wasn't easy to empathize with modern problems when they were interlaced with the stomach-turning tragedy of the Holocaust. As a mother and a wife I understood Julia's plight, but Sarah's firsthand account of certain death, mothers being torn from their children, fathers weeping helplessly, children enduring what no adult could reasonably bear--those things tore at my heart on a different level. The juxtaposition of the two made the modern seem trite, when in reality some of the things Julia dealt with probably would not seem so, if they were in a book of their own.  I honestly would have preferred a single narrative about Sarah--those chapters were more compelling and would have easily stood alone.

Symbolically, the modern journalist faces a decision that I believe is meant to mirror, or at least echo, that of the Jewish mothers in 1942. But it left me feeling guilty that there are no real modern comparisons to what happened. Some things defy analogy.

This was a good story and a fast read. I hated the end, though, because it was not on the same level as the rest of the book. The end seemed predictable, sappy, (to use an English teacher word--) jejune. I am still glad I read it, though. It's another reminder that there are so many pieces of the Holocaust left to understand or bring to light. In college, as part of a Holocaust in Literature and Film class, I read The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal: a short narrative and a "what if" that asked modern contributors what they would do in the author's shoes. Since high school each book I've read on this subject matter has the same effect on me, one intensified exponentially by motherhood:  I am constantly trying to put myself in the shoes of those I'm reading about, and I am constantly humbled by what I know is my inability to comprehend such tragedy, pain, and loss.  It's hard to read things like this because of what we have to feel, but doesn't that mean we should?

My recommendation: Read it.  You might be a little frustrated at the end but it's a compelling story.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this review. This is a book that I've really been wanting to read, but your review helped me know that now is not the right time. I am looking forward to reading it in the future though.