19 Sep 2011

Becky's Book Review #8 - Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Title: Sarah's Key/ Elle s'appellait Sarah
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Rating: 4/5
Genre: Modern + historical fiction/holocaust

General Description:
This is one of the tougher books I've read recently - and it was quite a harrowing movie as well. This review will predominantly cover the book but I've also written a little section on the movie also.

The novel covers the events of the Vel D'Hiv - in July 1942 around 7,500 Parisian Jews were rounded up and held in the Velodrome D'Hiv for 5 days with no food, water or toilets before being sent to the death camps. Of this figure, 4000 were children. The French government organised and were complicit in this - under orders from the Nazis. There wasn't a public apology until 1995.

Split between modern day with an American journalist covering the Vel D'Hiv and 1942, the book focuses on a little girl called Sarah who is taken to the Vel D'Hiv with her family. Unfortunately when the police came to round everyone up, she'd locked her little brother in their toy cupboard believing they were coming back + she could let him out. After the Vel D'Hiv she is taken to the camps along with all the other Jews. The story is her journey to get back to her brother. Back to modern day, the journalist is uncovering personal ties to Sarah and her story that she could never have expected.

It sounds wrong to say that I enjoyed this book but I did. I couldn't put it down. Firstly, it was very educational, I'd never heard of the Vel D'Hiv before, despite the fact that I'm Jewish and know a bit about the holocaust. I enjoyed the flick back to modern times also, although Julie (the journalist)'s marriage breakdown was not directly relative to the story - it just seemed to contrast all the liberty we take for granted with the terrible separation of Sarah from her parents at the camps. 
In addition - and certainly in the movie - you need the relative relief of the modern day because Sarah's tale is so desperately sad. There are, without doubt, some positive points in her tale (no spoilers) but ultimately her story is sad because her tragedy is just one of many tragedies, many lives and families ripped apart by war. It reminded me of how much we take for granted about the people around us. 

That might sound trite and cliched, but sometimes there's a reason things are cliched. When I finished this book I felt a small hollowness inside of me at the thought of what happened to all those children. It was almost unbearable to think about. And yet children are still, everyday in my lifetime, casualties of war. 

Although I felt so shaken up by this book, I was glad I read it - for the quality of the writing, the elegance of the prose, for the existence of a fictional Sarah and her tale - and to be reminded to be thankful every single day for what I've had - and have currently.

Why You Might Like It
I can't really write a "why you might like it" for this. I guess instead I can tell you why I picked it up:
- I'm interested in fiction about the holocaust
- I hadn't heard of the Vel D'Hiv
- It sounded like an interesting plot structure (split)
I didn't read it for fun so much as to learn and to remind myself of what had happened. I do this every so often. Maybe it's healthy, maybe not, but I don't like to forget those who died.  I like to remind myself to live life to the full, to take many risks, because other people didn't have that choice.

Why You Might Not
In case you missed it, this book is rather upsetting - the movie more so as you'll see below. It's up to you really. I sometimes feel a bit like my feelings are irrelevant - given what the book is about, I could be going through much worse and to be informed is more important. Being upset seems selfish and a luxury. So I almost force myself to read these things sometimes.
You might also not want to read it if you're not interested in the Holocaust, journalism, WW2 or if you just want a light-hearted read.

The Movie
I found the movie much, much more harrowing than the book. I was tearful on several occasions and if I'd not been at the cinema with my boss's girlfriend (!) but at home alone I think I would have indulged in a proper crying jag. I walked out of the cinema feeling like someone had kicked me in the heart.

 There is no two ways about it, Sarah's story is unbelievably upsetting on a big screen, at times overwhelmingly so - some of the scenes in the Vel D'Hiv and later on in the camp and on her journey are unflinching in their command of the viewer - and this is testament to the director of the film. But even so I was glad to return to modern day Paris and our journalist narrator.

The only flaw in the film was that the juxtaposition between Sarah's story - and Julie's story - seemed slightly clunky, despite excellent acting on both parts. Julie's problems that seemed embedded in the book seem somewhat irrelevant at times in the film. But that, for me, did not detract from the film as whole. It's worth seeing for sure, as it adds to the genre of holocaust movies.

If you've read the book or seen the film, I'd really like to know what you think also. And what you think based on this post - or if you have any other recommendations.

Thank you and good night

Stupidgirl has left the building


  1. Sarah's Key was a huge success both as a book and as a film (last year) in France. It is a period of history that the French are understandably not proud of. Paris has many memorials dedicated to both the Jews who lost their lives and the amazingly brave people who did try to save them.

    I felt exactly the same as you when I saw Sophie's Choice (by William Styron) played by the amazing Meryl Streep 31 years ago. I saw this when I was first pregnant but only managed to read the book a few years ago. Interestingly the film moved me far more than the book too.

  2. morally unexplainable, but the sad fact is those children were not casualties of war. the war was just a convenient smoke screen. their deaths in no way furthered Germany's war effort. In fact, such actions hampered them. the general culture simply accepted it. collaborators were never in short supply. religious hatred (to varying degrees) was universal and absolute. at times, the events feel more like something drawn from a science fiction narrative than western culture. there WERE public demonstrations against other governmental policies and the German leadership (democratically elected by the way) backed down. no one came forth to protest the martyrdom of the Jews. True, Christians were tortured and killed too, but rarely because of their faith and except in the case of Polish Catholics, Christian children were almost never gased, tortured, or burned. Does the guilt taint younger generations? Of course not (unless they're neo-nazis, or turn a blind eye toward such things). We in the U.S. engaged in genocidal actions against the American Indians. Some historians maintain that the Great Hunger in nineteenth century Ireland was a polite way for U.K. governments to stage a controlled, racially motivated mass die-off. the Irish population today is only a fraction of what it was back in the day. Live and learn. That's all we can do. ...Good choice. Good book and film