So many books have been written about the Holocaust that it seems impossible to approach the subject from a different angle. Tatiana De Rosnay has done just that in this story that connects two families to one tragedy stemming from the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup of the Jews in Paris in July 1942.
In this powerful and haunting novel, Sarah Starzynski – a young Polish Jew - is arrested in the night along with her parents. As she gathers up her belongings to take with her, with the French gendarmes waiting just outside, she locks her younger brother in a secret cupboard, promising to come back for him once she is released.
Sixty years later, American journalist Julia Jarmond is researching the Vel d'Hiv roundup on the eve of the anniversary events. Her research takes on a personal twist when she realizes that her French in-laws have been hiding a family secret: the memory of a horrific event that forever links them to Sarah Starzynski. Haunted and profoundly moved by Sarah's story, Julia begins a journey to locate her.
The best parts of this tale are the scenes from 1942. Sarah, too young to understand the magnitude of the events, naively believes that she will soon be back to free her brother, as she has promised. Despite the terrible things going on around her, the true horror comes when Sarah finally comprehends that she is never going back to rescue her brother.
The key she holds to the secret cupboard then becomes her spiritual link to him, a talisman that she is determined to cling to, despite everything else being taken from her. That key ultimately becomes the key to her own survival.
The bulk of the novel takes place in 2002, in Julia Jarmond's world. Some details in this part of the story seem superfluous and weigh down the plot, and stereotypes abound. Julia's husband is the sexy, arrogant, rude Frenchman who constantly takes potshots at her American-ness. Most of her in-laws are cold, snooty and indifferent and don't warmly welcome her into their fold.
As Julia begins to uncover more and more clues that lead her to Sarah Starzynski, she finds that her in-laws begin to open up to her more, while her husband grows more distant. Some of the characters, like Julia's friends, don't add anything particularly useful to the storyline, so it lags in places.
Despite these minor flaws, Sarah's Key is very well done overall. It's sad, yet hopeful. It's weighty, but ends on a light note. Sarah Starzynski is a tragic, memorable character whose personal horror reads more like truth than fiction.