Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book #53: The Paradox of Holocaust Fiction

"She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock.  Then slipped the key into her pocket."                                                              -Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah's Key

I just finished reading Sarah's Key, a novel that I wanted to love.  I wanted to love it and indeed learn from it, since I'm currently working on an intergenerational historical novel - and who better to learn from than an author whose novel has been made into a successful filmTatiana de Rosnay carries off her interweaving of past and present storylines with consummate skill, and yet I have to say I found something profoundly unsatisfying about the result.  

The historical plot focuses on Sarah Starzynski, a young Jewish French girl who suddenly finds her entire life under siege, when the French police, working under Nazi orders, evict the Starzynski family from their apartment in Paris and throw them into concentration camps in the French countryside.  But Sarah's torment is compounded by a personal guilt: in an attempt to save her little brother from the police, she locks him in a tiny closet, and only later, after she and her parents have been dragged away, realizes the consequences of her actions.  This strand of the novel I found utterly compelling and moving in how vividly it brings to life the horror of everyday-life-turned-upside-down through the eyes of a young girl.

Yet the present storyline that intersects with this narrative falls flat.  Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, discovers that the apartment her French husband has inherited was once inhabited by the Starzynski family and the tragic events that unfolded there come to haunt her conscience - leading to upheaval in her personal life.  While all the characters are skillfully depicted enough, I found myself unable to become emotionally invested in their crises: a marriage on the rocks, an unplanned pregnancy, the stresses of busy careers.  These normal concerns of contemporary life seem trivial and meaningless, juxtaposed with the unfathomable sadness of Sarah's plight.

And yet, don't get me wrong, it isn't that I wished de Rosnay had stuck strictly with the historical plot by telling the entire novel from Sarah's perspective.  To do so would have led to an utterly bleak novel (for who can honestly imagine a happy outcome for Sarah?)  No, I see why the author felt the need to allow for some moment of redemption through Julia's coming to terms with her sense of collective guilt.  Yet by creating Julia as a kind of stand-in for me, the reader, guiding my emotional response, I found my emotions invariably falling short of what I felt they should be, given the history at stake.  Perhaps this is the risk or paradox that any novelist may face in attempting to represent the Holocaust?  Shedding a few tears over Julia's angst felt like an overly sentimental and self-indulgent response, and yet I can't say how I would have told this story differently.

Photo from: here 


Mimi said...

I found Sarah's Key unsatisfying too. I think you've put your finger on the reason. Have you seen the movie based on the novel?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

No, I haven't seen the film yet, but I look forward to renting it. I read in a review that Kristin Scott Thomas brought the film to life (even though the story will probably suffer from the same unevenness as the novel).


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.