Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

It’s a terrible thing to compare one Holocaust story with another…. But it’s kind of what we do when we read about a topic that interests us, isn’t it?

Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, Sarah’s Key, is the fourth book I’ve read this year about the Holocaust. I got something different from each of the four books – Lola Bensky examined ‘survivor guilt’; The Street Sweeper pulled the past and present together in an impressive way; The Toy Maker delivered a plot twist that blew my mind; and Sarah’s Key focused on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, an event I knew nothing about until this novel (it was a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police. 13,152 Jews were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Only 811 survived. Because of the complicity of the French police, the Roundup is recognized as one of the darkest days in French history).

The story moves between the life of Sarah, a ten-year-old Jewish girl living in Paris in 1942, and Julia, an American journalist living in Paris in 2002. Julia is given the task of writing about the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and during her research discovers information about Sarah that has personal relevance.

The story was interesting from an historical perspective but the character of Julia was flat and dull, which meant that over half the book was flat and dull. Julia’s husband, Bertrand, was emotionally abusive (was it de Rosnay’s intention that the reader draw parallels between Bertrand and the Nazis/ French police involved in the Roundup…?) and their relationship (and Julia’s relationships with the extended family) lacked authenticity. The formulaic ending, with the ‘baby Sarah’ bit was so predictable I wanted to scream.

I brace myself for all sorts of feelings when I read a Holocaust story and often I have to put a book down for a little while, to rein in immense sadness and horror. Not so with Sarah’s Key – the horror came with the reading about the Roundup that I did after I had finished the novel – this book was a weird combination of bland and manipulative and left me feeling not much at all.

2/5 The Vel’ d’Hiv bits were very interesting, the rest I could have done without.

Julia and Bertrand celebrate a particular occasion with a Kir Royale.

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11 responses

    • Patchy is a good description. I’m curious about the Vel’ d’Hiv – my brief reading suggests that for many years after the War, the French covered up their role (understandably – guilt by association) but I’m surprised that I’ve never heard about it before, particularly as there were so many children involved (I think of the 13,000 taken, 4,000 of those were children).

  1. Glad you felt able to write a review expressing your reservations. I have my doubts about the morality of using the Holocaust as a hook to hang a story on. As distinct from Lola Bensky where her parents’ experience of the Holocaust is central to Lola’s life.

    • I agree Bill, hence my trepidation in even comparing the books. Unfortunately this book did have a gruesome and very distressing plot point – who knows if something like it ever actually happened (probably) but it did make me feel a little uneasy. Safe ground though, was the description of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, which was equally horrifying but informative and based on actual events.

  2. I agree with your review and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who disliked this book. I did find the Vel d’Hiv story important to learn about, especially since I love France. The brother’s story is so horrible but otherwise the book left me unmoved. There are so many better Holocaust reads.

    • The writing was fine, it was the modern part of the story that was lack-lustre. The film version stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia – she’s usually very good I think, so maybe it’s one of those stories that does better on the screen?

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