I believe Holocaust novels are a double-edged sword in mainstream literature. Certainly they are ripe for good drama and would appeal to masses that way; however, they are certainly not feel-good reads, which may put a damper on sales. With Sarah’s Key, however, Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a beautifully bittersweet story that is part mystery, part tragedy and overall an absorbing and suspenseful read.
Julia Jarmond is a journalist living in Paris, readying herself to move into an old apartment that her husband has inherited. When she is assigned to write an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup—a Nazi-decreed raid and mass arrest that took place in Paris in July 1942—she discovers that the apartment was inhabited by her in-laws, the Tezacs, after the previous residents, a Jewish family, were arrested. Her investigation leads her to uncover secrets buried by the Tezac family for generations, and she develops an insatiable fascination with the Jewish family’s daughter, Sarah Starzynski, who was just ten at the time of the Roundup and disappeared without a trace, never confirmed dead or alive in concentration camp records.
The novel tells Sarah’s and Julia’s stories simultaneously, cross-cutting between time periods; from the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup to Julia’s personal and journalistic endeavors. This method effectively generates suspense for Sarah’s storyline, though Julia’s takes a while to pick up the pace and become as absorbing as the former. While Julia’s story begins with the inspection of her new apartment, Sarah’s begins with being woken up on that fateful night in 1942 by the French police; the inciting incident that draws readers in immediately.
At times the novel suffers from occasional plot contrivance and drama-provoking gimmicks, which are needless, as the story is fairly strong enough on its own. There are also times when predictability dampens whatever power the plot twists and sudden turns of events carry. When a writer has engaging characters and a methodically conceived plot, there is no need for dramatic stunts and affectations to keep readers turning the page.
Sarah’s Key is a flawed yet worthwhile read; moving, riveting, and successfully maintaining, for the most part, a balancing act between the suspense of a detective novel and the tragic elements that are to be expected of a Holocaust novel. Readers will want discover along with Julia what became of Sarah Starzynski; whether she became a camp statistic or the heroine of her own inspirational story of survival.