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Sarah's Key
Sarah's Key
by Tatiana De Rosnay

Remembering the forgotten

In Paris 1942, French police arrest 10 year old Sarah and her family in a drive to round up Jewish families. In an effort to save her brother Michel, she locks him in their secret hiding place to keep him safe from harm, planning to release him on her return. In 2002, 60 years after the anniversary of the Velodrome d'Hiver incident, Julia Jarmond, a writer for an American journal, investigates this roundup of Jewish children by the French government. A slip from a family member and her investigation reveal decades of secrets within her family that link her family to Sarah. The horror of one moment in time reverberates through generations, transforming lives through generations. Julia's investigation unlocks unexpected links, tying them all together and linking disparate people whose lives have been touched by Sarah. Obsessed with the desire to unveil the secrets, Julia's investigation becomes more personal, transforming her life on the most intimate levels.

Told in alternating time periods by chapter so that the reader hears both Sarah's young voice speaking out from the past and Julia's voice, SARAH'S KEY builds up a level of emotion and suspenseful anticipation as the reader feels Sarah's experiences firsthand. Julia's investigation reveals the historical facts alongside Sarah's journey. The indifference, lack of knowledge and even denial Julia sees in her interviews 60 years after the event provides an eerie backdrop to Sarah's account of the historic events. How could so many Parisian children and families be removed from sight like this, not by the Germans but French citizens themselves? Julia's investigation of the Velodrome d'Hiver children (later transported to Auschwitz through various French concentration camps) provides a deeply troubling look into those later generations living near the site for whom history has no meaning.

Sarah's voice haunts with its innocence, an innocence shattered as she sees the nightmare around her. Her questions reverberate with a sharpness that cuts through right to the heart. The alternation between voices aligns the reader with Julia as the reader feels anxious to learn the details of Sarah's life. Later in the novel, the narrative switches exclusively to Julia's voice. From this point on in an increasing manner, the once awesome link between characters shifts in tone, and the book becomes problematic for me. SARAH'S KEY seems meant to be a tribute to the children but Julia's character begins to co-opt Sarah's story. Julia becomes so obsessed but her focus feels dogmatically more self-centered and the search for Sarah's life becomes more about Julia than Sarah. At this juncture, Julia's emotions take over and yet she is not a direct party to the event like other characters. Julia is not a direct witness, not a French citizen who lived through the times, but somewhat of an outsider to the drama before her and even within her in-laws' family so that her quest portrays her somewhat as a grand savior. Perhaps, an outsider is needed as a catalyst to provoke and unearth the long-held secrets but Julia's angst feels somewhat trivial as compared to Sarah's life, thereby lessening the depth of the redemptive possibilities so clearly present in other parts of the novel. In the beginning, Julia listens attentively, ferreting out voices from the silence surrounding Sarah's life. From silence, Julia makes history vividly alive but as the story develops, Julia pushes everyone by her obsession, never really listening to those involved from the past or in her own personal life. She becomes an agent for others whether they want it or not. From her husband to Sarah's family, Julia just brushes their desires aside and does what she wants. Her character and her self-centeredness begin to grate on the nerves at the end, all the more so because the preceding exquisiteness of the narrative built up higher expectations for the ending.

SARAH'S KEY is an important work of historical fiction, bringing the story of the Velodrome d'Hiver children into the light, giving a memory through fiction that makes these children alive. SARAH'S KEY remembers the forgotten. Tatiana De Rosnay brings to life a less documented moment of history beyond just the details or recorded names. The reader is right there with Sarah, asking the same questions through her eyes. Tatiana de Rosnay asks the hard questions and reveals the complicity and silences surrounding this little known event. She gives voice to a silenced voice, a child dehumanized and hidden from view by the events of the Holocaust and the silence of future generations. While Julia's character detracts from the sheer power of the book towards the end, SARAH'S KEY is a work of historical fiction that will haunt and uplift readers in the small details of human kindness within this dark, tragic moment of history.

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (September 2008)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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