She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock. Then she slipped the key into her pocket. The lock was hidden by a pivoting device shaped like a light switch. It was impossible to see the outline of the cupboard in the paneling of the wall. Yes, he’d be safe there. She was sure of it. The girl murmured his name and laid her palm flat on the wooden panel. “I’ll come back for you later. I promise.” -From Sarah’s Key, page 9-
Paris. Spring 1942. The Vel’ d’ Hiv’ (Operation Spring Breeze). Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key revolves around this deplorable historic event. Operation Spring Breeze was a French-led “round-up” of more than 13,000 Parisian Jews (mostly women and children) under order of the Nazis. Initially kept in inhumane conditions at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (an indoor cycle track), these victims of the Holocaust were eventually moved to concentration camps inside France (where they were guarded by French gendarmes) and later moved to Auschwitz where they were slaughtered. The roundup accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 Jews sent from France to Auschwitz. The Vel’ d’ Hiv’ has become of symbol of national shame in France.
De Rosnay has created a work of fiction which imagines a child caught in the round-up and how that one moment in history can have repercussions far into the future.
Sarah is a ten year old girl who is awakened on the night of July 16, 1942 to French policemen pounding on her family’s door. In an attempt to save her four year old brother, she locks him in a closet – their secret hiding place – and promises to return later.
Julia Jarmond is an American married to a French man and living in Paris in 2002. A journalist, she is given the assignment to write about the Vel’ d’ Hiv’ for the 60 year remembrance of this tragic event.
The novel alternates between Sarah’s POV after her arrest with that of present-day Julia as she begins to unravel not only the historical significance of the 1942 Jewish round-up, but discovers a connection to her own life.
Sarah’s Key is a compelling page-turner, especially in the early part of the novel. De Rosnay writes with empathy and does not spare the reader any details of the horror which concentration camp victims faced. I found Sarah’s story the most engaging – she was the character who I wanted to know and whose mystery kept me turning the pages. Julia, although less interesting, provides the reader with a current perspective of how we examine our past history – and how that history can impact the present.
The novel’s weakness is a tendency to fit the plot around history in such a way that some events feel contrived. De Rosnay introduces several twists and turns which are sometimes predictable. Julia’s husband, Bertrand, is a cookie-cutter character whose penchant for chauvanism and narcissism had me wondering why any woman would want to spend time with him.
But, despite these flaws, Sarah’s Key is still a riveting piece of literature which is hard to put down.
Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction.