Friday, 19 August 2011

Sarah's Key - Jewish Girl's Sufferings in Nazi France

When my aunt told me "I have read a book that you might like", I was very skeptical. Not to be too full of myself, but my aunt's taste doesn't in anyway resemble my own. There is nothing wrong with reading sugarcoated love stories or predictable crime novels but I have always felt this type of literature is losing my time. With the abundance of great books to read, I just don't see the point of reading these, even with the idea of relaxing. Emotional and sensitive as I am, I don't use novels or movies to escape these emotions and feelings. Instead, I take even more emotions from the literature I read that I can bear. However, my aunt insisted that I would simply love Sarah's Key and that it even made HER cry. My aunt not only read a serious novel but she was even moved by it. In addition, she told me that it was about Jews, which is one of my favorite topics, so I went for it.

To be honest, I expected a little bit more from Tatiana De Rosnay's Sarah's Key. The idea is good - a little Jewish girl, taken together with her family by the French police and moved to a stadium, where the conditions are terrible. The Jews are left without food, shelter, water, and toilet waiting to be transferred to one of the hundreds concentration camps, where most of them find their death. Sarah, wanting to protect her little brother, leaves him in the secret wardrobe of their apartment, promising to return and unlock him. Hence, Sarah's key. Unfortunately, Nazi occupied France doesn't offer this sense of security and planning. The little girl is unable to save her brother or her family; a disastrous guilt that hunts her down all of her life, leaving her scared and unable to feel happy.

This one of the story lines. The other one, 60 years after the tragic events at the Parisian stadium, involves a 45-old American journalist living in France. Julia receives the task of writing an article about these Jews and starts digging in the story of Sarah and of the other children. Dealing with problems with her beautiful but unfaithful husband, her pretentious French family-in-law, her unfortunate pregnancy, and her obsession with the little girl, Julia discovers a secret about her husband's family that has been hidden for more than 60 years. The stories of two women from totally different generations and time periods entangles in a novel about loyalty, love, compassion, suffering, and forgiveness.

Even though the story is indeed tragic and emotional, I didn't cry. I just couldn't feel it from Rosnay. The plot has the potential of becoming something truly incredible and touching but at times I felt as if the author herself was not feeling it. The story, of course is made up; only the background events are real. Still, Rosnay's fiction is not enough to grasp the brutality and terror of separating a family, the pain and suffering of leaving your brother to die, the compulsive feeling of guilt that it was you that survived and not someone else. I felt sad because I kept imagining the events in my own head. But reading about them, I just felt a little touch of sadness and depression. I expected a lot more because the story itself is great. The way it was told by the author - not so much.

I would by far recommend the other two Jewish stories I read this year - The Diary of Anne Frank and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Both are about the sufferings of little girls in Nazi occupied countries. Both present a compelling story of how the most innocent accept and fight the terror inflicted upon them. One has a unfortunate ending, the other one - a more happy one. Even though the story of the little Anne locked in a secret house in Netherlands is very different from Liesel's destiny, told from the perspective of Death itself, both novels are examples of what good literature about this period should look like. Compared with them, Sarah's Key doesn't have the same influence or effect on the reader. Not that you mustn't read it; it is just a bit overrated for what it truly offers.

1 comment:

  1. This book sounded a lot better than it was. I didn't like the main character in the modern part very much, and there was a point in the last third of the book where Sarah's voice goes away and her story is left dangling until Julia finishes it--and that's when I really lost interest, not really wanting to put up with all of the whiny Julia's ramblings. I enjoyed the story overall, and learning about an event in history that I really had no knowledge of, but it could have done with a lot less of the minutiae of Julia's life.