Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong made a huge impression on me as a First World War novel. It was well researched, moving, with a powerful story. I have never found his subsequent novels matched this. He is nonetheless an author with a wide and loyal readership up there with Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.
His latest Paris Exho fuses two lives in Paris. One, Hannah Kohler ,32 and lonely, is an American woman researching into French complicity in the deportation of the Jews during the World War Two occupation.
The other is Tariq, a nineteen year old Algerian, who decides to work in France and is curious to know more about his deceased in France. His research is less historically-based but he finds out more of the oppression and suppression of Algerians in the sixties during their War of Independence through a mysterious man called Victor Hugo he meets on the Paris metro.
Hannah and Tariq’s lives fuse when Tarq comes to live in her apartment.
Hannah’s research reveals a shabby time in France’s history notably the round-up of the Jews into a velodrome where they were kept with no water for 72 hours and then deported in train to concentration camps.
He was the Home Secretary who was brutal with Algerians living in Paris some of whom were thrown in the Seine to drown by the riot police in 1961.
Both historical accounts are riveting.
The novel also describes the relationship between Hannah and an Englishman living in Paris Julian Finch, Tariq and his co-workers in a fast food chicken restaurant, Tariq and his family and Algerian girlfriend Leila.
There are also other fantasy relationship of a magic realist nature. The end result is a novel which whilst engaging is overwhelming as it is tries rather too hard to do too much.
The switching of the narration from Hannah to Tariq and the neo-realist relationships with characters who may not exist somewhat confuse a reader who also has to absorb the historical detail.
Sebastian Faulks provides a service in exposing the complicity of the French Vichy government but this is no revelation.
I recall being in France in the 1980s seeing an old school friend who worked for Reuters. He directed me to a article in La Nouvelle Observateur which revealed the Velodrome round-up in some detail, naming Rene Bousquet, a police officer in Vichy, as its perpetrator who then served under Mitterrand and was assassinated before he was brought to trial.
It may be news to the British or American reader but not the French one.
The description of Paris especially the metro come more to life than some of the characters. Tariq is fascinated by this transport system. The ending is a bit flat with both central. characters finding permanent companionship but not with one another. This low-key conclusion might be intentional.