Sarah’s Key would be a distressing read if the author had chosen to tell it in the first person and completely immersed us in the historical time period of the Second World War. It is still a difficult story within a dreadful time period of history, however, de Rosnay’s use of flashback and third person limited point of view, allow the reader some valuable distance from the tragic events of Paris 1942. I appreciated this distance while I experienced the events surrounding Vel’ d’Hiv.
The story of Vel’ d’Hiv is not one which is well-known, at that is de Rosnay’s contention within the novel. I haven’t researched how well or often it has been told. It is the story of the rounding up and subsequent dispersion and extermination of the Jewish community of Paris. It was an appalling event and hearing it told hurts the empathetic reader. Within the story the fictional character of Julia Jarmond is determined to learn about Vel’ d’Hiv and it’s impact on her family and the family home. She comes across resistance within the French community to acknowledge the event and the complicity of the French authorities and populous. I can relate to this experience of reluctance to face our societal culpability. I remember clearly standing at the Manitoba Legislature during a First Nation’s demonstration in the Fall of 1990. It was the first time I faced the fact that as a white person in Canada, I was a part of the treacherous events which disenfranchised and marginalized First Nations people within Canada. I remember listening to the drums and wondering how it could be made right and how I could ever feel as if I deserved to be in Canada at all. It is an important act to recognize and admit collective societal guilt. Books, such as, Sarah’s Key help us to acknowledge the terrible within ourselves. I am both Sarah and Edouard; both victim and perpetrator.
Sarah’s Key shines a light on issues and events which are difficult and painful allowing us to appreciate the human and the heroic within people. I enjoyed Julia’s tenacity and her daughter, Zoe’s forthrightness. de Rosnay’s characters are complete and real. I felt as if I knew them as people and might meet them on the street. I know only a few ‘real’ French people but they feel old European to me. de Rosnay understands family politics and her portrayal of the family meltdown was altogether believable.
Again this is a book which was read for an adult book club but would be appropriate for a 9-12 school library. It would be of interest for teachers of World War II history, as well as for themes of family, divorce, conflict, guilt, responsibility, and racism.
Nightline Review compared with Cutting for Stone