Sebastian Faulks, Penguin, 2018, ISBN 978-1-78-633022, 298pp
I could push the boat out and claim that Sebastian Faulks is the greatest living English author. I could, but I won’t. But he is certainly up there among the best. Anyone who has read Birdsong (1993) cannot have but been completely stunned, and even changed by it. On Green Dolphin Street (2001) contains some of the most beautiful prose by a modern author. His writing is not restricted to novels: The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (1996) contains three biographies of Englishmen whose lives were cut short for one reason or another. He has the added advantage of having been born in Newbury, Berkshire where I lived for many years. You will have gathered that I am a fan of this writer and it was the work of an instant to snatch a copy of his latest novel, Paris Echo from the shelves of our own Moruya Bookshop.
Faulks describes himself as a Francophile so it is no surprise to find that the Paris in the title is the Paris in France (and not the one in Texas) and that it is largely in Paris that the novel is set. The story revolves around two central characters. Hannah is an American historian who has returned to Paris to continue her research into the role of women in the Second World War. The other character is Tariq who is Morrocan and who has entered France illegally in search of the mother that he never knew but is convinced is still alive and in Paris. A series of coincidences leads Tariq to Hannah and he becomes her lodger. Hannah’s researches take her to a piece of history that is rarely spoken of. I have been listening to a series of podcasts about the collapse of France in 1940 and the craven, short-sighted and essentially selfish attitudes of the politicians of the time (I know, I know … that does sound familiar, doesn’t it?). Vichy France played a role in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Yet French cooperation with the Nazi Holocaust was not admitted for almost 50 years; eventually Jacques Chirac offered an apology.
For nineteen-year-old Tariq the story is about a young man, from another culture, an illegal immigrant, trying to integrate into France and French culture. His days are spent looking, searching and staying alive. But he also acts as a sounding board for Hannah, though whether by accident of design is a moot point. His relationship with a puppeteer called Victor Hugo is amusing and illuminating and, above all, relevant to the story and to us.
I found this book a good read. I also found it thought provoking for its coverage of the French contribution to the Nazi war effort. Some quick research confirms that there is little literature on this. If you want to read a book that makes you think then read this one.