The war-time ghosts of a Paris past

The idea of the noble French Resistance has come to dominate the public imagination but in this often disturbing novel Faulks reminds us of a more harrowing history, writes Michele Magwood of 'Paris Echo'

16 June 2019 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times: 16/06/2019

Paris Echo ****
Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, R290

Sebastian Faulks returns to his beloved France in his latest novel, set in contemporary Paris. He returns, too, to his preoccupation with war, in particular the German Occupation of the city during World War 2.

The idea of the noble French Resistance has come to dominate the public imagination but in this often disturbing novel Faulks reminds us of a more harrowing history.

Hannah is an American academic who is in Paris to research the experience of women under the Occupation. Tariq is a Moroccan illegal immigrant who has come to the city to find, well, he's not sure what he's looking for.

He is a vain and shiftless young man, bored by his life in Tangier and drawn to Paris by its romance and the fact that his late mother had been born there.

Gradually, though, Faulks builds him into a character of wit and resilience as he navigates this baffling country and culture.

Hannah, who is 15 years older, takes him in as a lodger, and to help her with translating audio accounts of life in the 1940s. Together they bear witness to a diabolical history that shows the extent of French complicity with the occupiers. At the Vélodrome d'Hiver, for example, French police, on instruction from their Nazi overlords, rounded up 13,000 Jews and kept them in appalling conditions before deporting them to the death camps.

Tariq also comes to learn of the bitter history of France's occupation of Algeria.

Faulks is too adept a novelist to sink the narrative under so much uncomfortable history, although he comes close at times. What keeps it buoyant is his overt affection for Paris and the ghosts of past characters with which he peoples it. @michelemagwood

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