I’ve been lucky to have this incredible debut novel since last year and in that time it hasn’t lost any of its emotional power. A second reading still left me deeply sad for the characters, but also for real people who lost family members due to war. Not just those who died but those who became displaced and scattered across the globe from each other. Regular readers will know my late in-laws war experiences thar I’m currently turning into a novel, because it is so extraordinary. So the human cost of war is a subject close to my heart and I absolutely loved this novel; it is shocking, heart-rending, and deeply moving. Told across two timelines, two countries and in several different character’s perspectives we are shown every angle on this difficult case.
We meet Jean-Luc and Charlotte who live in California, 1953. Santa Cruz is an incredible place to live, and a great place to bring up their young son Sam. The fled France during the war when Sam was only days old. However, despite seeming like the perfect family they have a huge secret. Jean-Luc and Charlotte were both working in public services in France; Charlotte was a nurse and Jean-Luc was a railway worker. So, when the Germans occupied Paris they were forced to work for the German forces. One day Jean-Luc is transferred to a different part of the railway, making repairs and doing maintenance on the track that is carrying French Jews over borders towards Poland, and Auschwitz. There are rumours about what is going on in these so-called work camps. Jean -Luc has heard them, but now he’s seeing mounting evidence that something is badly wrong. Sent to tidy up after a late train, the men find people’s belongings littered across the platform, glasses, crutches and even teddy bears. On one horrific day he sees a doll lying further up the platform, but when a worker picks it up, it isn’t a doll at all. Jean-Luc has to act and decides to sabotage the rails, to do something that perhaps saves one person. All he gets is a blow that opens up his cheek and a shattered leg. There in the hospital, while he recovers, he meets nurse Charlotte and slowly they form a connection. They are open with each other about the mixed feelings they have about their jobs. Are they collaborating or are they just trying to survive the best they can? So, when a chance comes to make a massive difference to one person, will they take it?
Sarah and husband David are rounded up and put in a train carriage to a work camp. Sarah has given birth to Samuel only a few hours before. Squashed into little more than a cattle truck, so cramped they can’t sit down at all, and one bucket in the corner for a toilet. An unplanned stop sees them herded onto a platform and Sarah sees her chance. In a second she weighs up the railway worker in front of her and thinks he looks kind, despite the scar down his face. She thrusts her baby at him and begs him to look after Samuel. Jean-Luc vows to keep him safe. He gathers a few essentials and goes to Charlotte’s home and asks if she’ll go with him. His plan is to use contacts in the resistance to walk over the Pyrenees to the border with Spain and hopefully sail for the USA. Our second timeline is 1953 in Santa Cruz, California. Jean-Luc, Charlotte and Sam have really settled into an American way of life. Sam is now nine and although they miss Paris they know this is the best way to live. However, when a black car turns up outside the house one morning, neighbours curtains start twitching. What could this lovely couple have done? Is it something to do with the war?
I believed every single character in this moving story from the heart and often with a lump in my throat. It brings up such an important moral and ethical dilemma. How can reparation and restitution be made when the atrocity is so seismic it affects the whole world? No one in this story is untouched by the Nazi’s march across Europe, even down to the ‘collabo’ men and women, who might have only been doing the job they’d always done, but because they now worked for the Bosch, were hated by their neighbours or even killed in some places. To the Jewish camp mates at Auschwitz who had some useful skill the guards could exploit, such as David’s medical skills taking him within a whisper of the terrible experiments conducted by Dr Mengele. In truth, everyone was just trying to survive, to keep their family safe and for some people that meant paying a higher price than others. I felt deeply that Jean-Luc was a good man who felt a huge responsibility for the baby Sarah passed him that night. He was willing to kill to keep him safe and I believed his motives were entirely altruistic. Charlotte also takes huge risks to keep him safe and I think both feel this is a task given by God and as they flee across the border into Spain, their only thought is keeping the boy alive for parents who are likely to have been killed days before. As Sarah first steps from the train at their destination she takes in the skeletal prisoners, the large pipe belching out smoke and the all pervading smell, and realises they are in hell. Prisoners plead with them – ‘why didn’t you kill yourself?’ The carriages were packed so tight it was standing room only with others shuffling around so everyone got a chance to sit for a few moments. If you couldn’t stay upright you died and that was probably preferable to this. To go through hell then have to spend nine years looking for your son is heart breaking, but in whose best interest is it for the child to return to parents he never knew?
It was Sam I felt for more than anyone, because there is only one outcome that would have been fair for him and he isn’t asked. I was distressed by his experience just as much as that of his parents. He is wrenched away from the parents and life he knows, scared and alone he is drugged to be transported to France and his birth parents. He goes from an outdoorsy experience of life to a flat in Paris, with two strangers who don’t speak his language. He has no friends and no grasp of his Jewish heritage either. His confidence is affected, his mood grows lower, the skin on his legs breaks out and becomes sore, weepy and infected. All he wants is his father, his mother and his home. I won’t reveal how this is resolved but I wept as I read the last few chapters. This is so powerful and a difficult read in places, but such a beautifully written account of how war touches everyone. Loss is the all pervasive emotion I felt throughout and for so many different things. If we think about loss as ripples on a pond they stretch outwards on the surface of the water hitting each group of people more gently the further removed from the event they are. This novel shows us that the after effects of a terrible event like the Holocaust keep rippling forward through time touching each generation that comes after.
Meet The Author
Ruth Druart grew up on the Isle of Wight, moving away at the age of eighteen to study psychology at Leicester University. She has lived in Paris since 1993, where she has followed a career in teaching. She has recently taken a sabbatical, so that she can follow her dream of writing full-time.