Monday, November 10, 2008

Sarah's Key

Tatiana de Rosnay really painted herself into a corner when she decided on the structure of Sarah’s Key, her touching portrayal of one of the darkest incidents in French history, the July 16, 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews by the French police for their eventual transport to the Auschwitz death camp. De Rosnay chose to tell her tragic story by alternating the first person narrative of Sarah Starzynski, a little girl caught up in the roundup with her family, and Julia Jarmond a journalist assigned to do a story on the incident some sixty years later.

This structure worked well for the first half of the book, during which Julia researched what happened at the Vélodrome d'Hiver in alternating chapters with Sarah’s account of what she experienced and saw on the fateful day she was imprisoned in that indoor stadium with her mother and father. Then, at about the book’s midpoint, de Rosnay found it necessary to silence Sarah’s direct voice and to tell the rest of the story strictly through Julia and her efforts to determine Sarah’s ultimate fate.

This is the point at which the book loses its most dramatic and effective voice and its whole tone changes. The shock and horror that dominated the first part of the book soon evolve into a much less emotionally gripping tale of Julia’s determination to find out whether or not Sarah survived the war and, if so, what might have happened to her since.

That said, Sarah’s Key is a very good book and one that will be hard to forget, especially since it sheds light on an event that so many people themselves prefer to forget and would be happy enough that their children and grandchildren never learn about.

Sarah Starzynski was a typical Paris schoolgirl until the day that her mother sewed a yellow star on her school dress. Even then, things went along fairly normally until the morning when the family opened the door to French policemen who demanded that the family come with them. Sarah’s young brother, a spirited little boy, refused to go and managed to hide in a built-in wardrobe before the authorities saw him. Things took a horrible turn, however, when Sarah locked the hidden wardrobe and told her brother to remain there quietly until she could return for him in a few minutes. She slipped the key into her pocket and left the apartment with her parents, not for a moment thinking that she might never see the inside of her home again.

Sarah and her parents were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver where they and thousands of other French citizens, Jews all, were locked in with almost no food or water, hardly any place to sleep, and absolutely no toilet facilities. Old people died, babies died, newborns died or were born dead - and all of this happened without a German in sight; the French government was entirely in charge of the operation. Just when it seemed that things could get no worse, parents were separated from their children, no matter how young the children were, never to be seen again. Unimaginable as it is, the several thousand children were left on their own in the same conditions they had suffered with their parents.

Miraculously, Sarah managed to escape the camp to which the surviving children were sent, determined to get back to Paris to release her little brother from the hidden wardrobe before it was too late to save him.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond can hardly believe what she learns about the Vél d'Hiv and what some 450 French policemen did there for the Nazis at the instruction of the French government. She is even more shocked when she stumbles upon a link between her husband’s family and what happened that day, and dedicates herself to finding Sarah so that she can tell her that the family has not forgotten her, nor will they ever.

Sarah’s Key is about bigotry, collaboration, hatred, and looking the other way when evil presents itself. It is a horrible reminder of what supposedly good people are capable of in times of war - especially the willingness to turn on fellow citizens and neighbors of a different religion.

Sadly, it is also a reminder of how little has changed since July 16, 1942.

Rated at: 4.0

31 comments:

  1. I just finished reading Sarah's Key last week and I really enjoyed it. Like you I missed Sarah's voice when it ended. I understand why the author made the choice to set it up that way, but I wanted more. I also think it needed to end earlier. But all that said, I thought it was excellent and people should definitely look into this one.

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  2. I received an early review copy of this one and was also struck by the change at the mid-point. It didn't change the emotional tone so much for me, though. Instead it created an underlying tone for the rest of the book. I enjoyed that she wrote it from an "outsiders" awe-struck perspective because I'm often finding MYSELF feeling that way when I read about these things that happened in the past, "how could anyone have let this happen? why would they DO that?" And I'm equally disturbed by the hatred and bias and (you said it best, Sam) bigotry!

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  3. I agree with you on all counts, Sam. The author did paint herself into a corner (good way to put it) and it was strange when Sarah's voice suddenly disappeared. There were also times I didn't fully understand Julia's obsession. And, yet, it was a wonderful book and I won't forget the story for a long time.

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  4. Natasha, you hit on a good point; the book went on a little too long for me, too. I think it would have been a stronger novel with a more concise ending, one that would have left the memory of what actually happened to Sarah a lot stronger in the reader's mind at the book's end.

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  5. Jen, I remember as a teenager seeing a book of photos taken by the Nazis themselves during their reign of terror on the Jews of Europe. I had a difficult time getting over what I saw - for the first time it all seemed real to me. Honestly, I think that the book changed me as a person, something that rarely happens in the real world.

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  6. Glad to hear that you enjoyed the book, bookfool. It's one I will remember for a while, too, especially the first half, though.

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  7. I too, just finished this book this week for a book club. Interesting premise and I'm glad I am aware of the atrosities that took place by the French police during this time. The book inspired me to pay homage to the memorial that was erected at the Vel' d'hiv site by Walter Spitzer. I took photos while I was there this week and also posted on my blog if you are interested in viewing these. www.susankozlowski.blogspot.com

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  8. Those are beautiful photos, Susan...very touching. I really like the way that you highlighted each of the individuals and regrouped some of them into meaningful units. You're very talented. Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. Im struggling... This book was recommended to me and I went ahead and downloaded it on my Kindle yesterday (July 15) without so much as looking at a summary. Im already heartbroken and not even halfway through the first half of the book. Being that today marks 67 years to the day of the Vel d'Hiv, I think I will turn back to the story ever grateful to be a Jew living in this time and place, ever aware of hate and the destruction it causes.

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  10. herculesire, "Sarah's Key" is very definitely one of the most moving books I've ever read. I do think that the second half of the book falls a bit flat, but that may just be because the first half is so good.

    I hadn't realized that the anniversary of that tragic day was today. Thank you for reminding me. I used to think this kind of thing could never happen again - now I am not so sure because it happens somewhere on a smaller scale almost every week.

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  11. I actually enjoyed how we lost Sarah's voice mid-way through the book. The focus of the story is through the impact that Vel' d'hiv had, not the survivors, but on the by-standers and people who are at least one-generation removed. Losing Sarah's voice helped to emphasize all that was lost. A very good read!

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  12. That's an interesting reaction, Anonymous. I understand perfectly what you're saying and I think you're onto something. Thanks.

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  13. I am not an avid reader. Something made me pick up this new release off the library shelf 3 days ago. I too liked the fact that we lost Sarah's voice. It made Sarah's letter late in the book more emotional, something I am not sure could have been as raw or deep as hearing her continue her story. Her son's understanding of her "accident" hit a cord with me. The split of Julia's husband's family over her actions made me feel like I was there. Julia's final meeting with the son, their moments when he learned she named her baby Sarah. I will never forget this book.

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  14. I actually sort of liked that we did not hear Sarah's thoughts after the halfway point. What else could she possibly say? She obliterated herself from her own life. Julia's obsesssion with Vel' d'Hiv (how is that pronounced?) was somewhat hard for me to fathom.

    For a similar novel about Italy's and Italian's reaction to the Shoah, read Mary Doria Russell's Thread of Grace.

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  15. Anonymous, the book seems to have made quite an impact on thousands of readers. Your reaction to the book is the measure of greatness when it comes to fiction. It's not a book I will soon forget either.

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  16. Anonymous, I think the author added to the "mystery" of the story by silencing Sarah when she did. It left the field wide open for Julia to explore the past for herself, during which she learned so much about her own family. It worked that way but I personally experienced a drop in my emotional commitment to the story when Sarah left.

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  17. I just finished reading Sarah's Key.It was a haunting account of a shameful event in France's history. Readers who enjoyed Sarah's Key might want to read Haven by Ruth Gruber. It is an account of 1,000 refugees(mostly, but not all Jewish) who were invited by President Roosevelt to come to America during 1944. They were interred, for lack of a better word, on an abandoned army base in Oswego, New York. The were there for 18 months. Their experiences during the Holocaust closely paralleled what took place in Sarah's Key. bOth are terrific reads.

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  18. Thanks for the book recommendation, Suemny, sounds like something I need to check out. That's a bit of American history of which I was totally unaware.

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  19. Sarah abandoned her son and husband; she is guilty, as were the French police, of depriving her family of her love and her presence. I did not see that coming; it does not follow from her childhood concern about her brother.

    She did not thank the couple who cared for her and loved her. Her character dropped off the radar screen to surface long enough to kill herself.

    Loved the book, but not the conclusion. I would have liked her to have loved the family she chose for herself.

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  20. Even though the voice of Sarah ended abruptly, it really lends itself to how it was for the Jews back then. Their whole existance endeded abruptly, didn't it? That's how it was for Sarah also when she left her old life and became someone else. That too was abrupt for her. The book mirrors all the abrupt changes that Sarah and her people went through both in that fateful time in their lives and later for Sarah when she moved to America and let her past be forgotten and she abruptly 'became' someone else and put her past behind her. It was all sudden and abrupt and the emptiness they felt is like the emptiness and loss we feel when we read the book and don't get to hear the voice of Sarah any longer without warning.

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  21. I found the ending a little jarring at first, too, Anonymous. It seemed out of character for Sarah but I suppose it shows the damage that was done in her childhood.

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  22. That's an interesting take on the variation between the two parts of the book, Anonymous. It does make sense but you might be crediting the author with something she never thought of...maybe she'll tell us.

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  23. I have read the book and it's touching. From the first page till last.. feel the real situation. Tatiana, two tumbs up!

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  24. I agree that this is a remarkable book, Ayu. It deserves to be widely read and that seems to be happening because I still get more feedback on this book than on any other I've ever posted about.

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  25. I'm glad that de Rosnay didn't give a happy ending for Sarah.Although terribly sad,it is much more realistic. Someone who suffered such traumas in childhood is never going to be a happy stable person in adulthood. How could you say (annonymous) that she was as guilty as the French police? She was an innocent victim.

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  26. She was definitely a victim, Swallow, and a scarred one, at that. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  27. I just read Sarah's Key, started at 5pm and could not put it down. An amazing book, I had no idea that the french police were responsible for rounding up all those families, so very horrible and sad. Thank you Tatiana for writing this book.

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  28. Unfortunately, Anonymous, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what French authorities were guilty of when the Nazis took France.

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  29. So glad I found your site - I was doing some research for our book club on "Sarah's Key" and found you and lots of interesting takes on the book. Thanks for a great blog!

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  30. I didn't quite read this book at one sitting, but within twenty-four hours, something I haven't done for a very long time.

    As soon as the type face changed I thought, 'Ha,ha I have a choice.' So I skipped every other chapter reading only Sarah's terse account before going back to read Julia's piecing together of the story.

    I don't quite understand how by silencing Sarah's voice halfway through the novel the author loses dramatic effect. Perhaps if I'd read the interleaved chapters the way the book was published . . .

    The second part of the book is as much about how Julia's life is affected by Sarah's story . . .

    I have not seen the film. Kirsten Scott-Thomas . . . can't be bad.

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  31. I agree with the comment that it was hard to fathom how Sarah could abandon her son by killing herself. I realize she was horribly scarred by her childhood experiences, but she felt so guilty about "abandoning" her brother, yet she does the same thing to another little boy -- her own! And one thing that no one seems to comment on is the role of Sarah's mother in abandoning her son. She knew Sarah had locked the boy in the cupboard, only wondering how the father would find the key to let him out. And yet, in front of their apartment building, she calls for her husband, ensuring that he would come out of hiding and go with them (ending his chances of ever escaping). And yet she doesn't tell anyone that her son is hiding in the apartment. She could have had him taken out then, to come with the family as she wanted the father to do. She was the only one who knew that the boy was locked away and couldn't possibly come out. Sarah, at least, thought she would come back soon, but the mother would have known that was not at all likely. By forcing the father to come out of hiding, yet staying silent about the son, she ensured both their deaths.

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