It is not very often that a book can be carried by plot alone, but Sarah’s Key is one of them. Tatiana de Rosnay’s fictionalized account of Nazi-occupied Paris is praised by Holocaust survivors for the attention she brings to a lesser known tragic episode of the War.
Her language is unremarkable, and the characters a bit flat. Many of the events she creates in present day are overly sentimental. However, I had never heard of the Vel’ d’Hiv’, and so I was mesmerized and intently curious about the story. Thus, the subject itself gives the novel the depth and texture necessary for a good read.
In short, by orders of the Nazi government, in July of 1942, French Police rounded up more than 13,000 Jews living in Paris. For six days, they were housed in a stadium without food or water, much less appropriate living conditions. (Reminiscent of the stories we heard from those who stayed in the Super Dome after Katrina.) Then men were divided from women and children as they were shipped to several camps on the outskirts of Paris. From those camps, women were separated from their children, and all were taken to Auschwitz.
Sarah’s Key tells parallel stories – one of a young girl, Sarah, who, with her parents, is part of the round up; and the second, a journalist, Julia, in (almost) present day Paris who is writing a memorial to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of the events. In a contrived but expedient twist of fate, the apartment where Sarah’s family was forced from is then occupied (and so owned) by the family of Julia’s husband. When the story begins, Julia’s architect husband is renovating the flat in preparation for moving his wife a daughter in. The narrative alternates between Sarah’s story and Julia’s discovery of and then search for Sarah.
Sarah’s Key refers to a key to a secret hiding place in their home – a space within the walls – where Sarah hides her younger brother when the police come. From the moment Sarah and her parents are taken away, she is intent on getting back home to free her brother from the locked hideaway.
At just under 300 pages, this is a quick and worthy read – despite its shortcomings.