Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bookshelf: Tatiana de Rosnay


I have set aside my love affair with Diana Gabaldon momentarily seeing as the next book in the series, "The Fiery Cross", is 1443 pages. Yikes. I have a long journey ahead of me, and so this past weekend I took a pause from Scotland and Jamie Fraser to step instead into France in 1942. As a breather. I love period pieces, if you couldn't already tell.
I don't know what made my mother buy "Sarah's Key" for me this past Christmas. For me, when buying a book it's always about the cover. If it doesn't catch my eye then I won't pick it up. That might sound superficial, going against that saying about judging a book by its cover, but there are thousands of books in a bookstore. How can I look behind each and every cover? It's impossible. So in the case of books, it really it all about appearance.
Maybe it was the picture of Paris or the little children running with their backs to the camera, the little girl's dress flowing behind her with each step. For whatever reason, my mother bought this book and I will be forever grateful.

You know the kinds of books and movies that sit in the pit of your stomach, churning for days and weeks, maybe even years after you've finished them? "Sarah's Key" is one of those books. I've read hundreds of books and seen hundreds of films and yet only a handful of each reside within me, suddenly popping to the surface at odd moments and bringing with them haunting thoughts and memories. "Beyond Borders" starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen is one of those films for me, as is "Schindler's List". They are amazing films, in so many ways, but I walked away from both knowing that a piece of me had been forcefully torn away. That piece is the innocense that comes with being young and sheltered and American. It's exposure to things that from my Barbie-like bedroom in suburban Massachusetts I never would have imagined existed. It's the rude awakening to things so gruesome, so unimaginable that shock you down your spine and leave you spinning. "Sarah's Key" is one of those books for me.

Tatiana de Rosnay tells two stories in "Sarah's Key". One in present day France, of a female American journalist, Julia, who in her job as a Magazine writer stumbles upon a grotesque part of France's history that the people either are unaware or ignorant of. What she discovers consumes her, seeping from her work life into her personal and before long she unearths a horrible secret kept hidden for sixty years.
Then there's the story of a little girl - fair-haired and blue-eyed - ushered along with her mother and father from their apartment by the French police in the early morning hours of July 16, 1942. Before leaving she locks her four year old brother in their secret cupboard in the bedroom, along with a cup of water, teddy bear and flashlight, promising to be back soon and pocketing the key.
The two stories take turns, alternating back and forth, until suddenly everything is entangled and bare before you. It's shocking, gut-wrenching, and while it's de Rosnay's fiction, what resonates most is that it's likely true. Maybe the characters are fiction, but the events are fact. There most certainly were people who lived this very nightmare, under similar if not identical circumstances - forced from their homes and separated from family, unsure of when or if they'd ever be reunited, whether they would even live through the night.
I don't want to say anymore because you really need to experience the journey the two stories take you on for yourself. It's beautiful, it's ugly, it's difficult, it's real. And you need to read it and learn about the children, innocent wide-eyed children, who never understood why these unspeakable things were happening to them.


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