Autumn seems to be the time we traditionally read some serious non-fiction. (Last year it was Ben Judah’s This is London)
For 2017, the chosen book is Les Parisiennes by local author, Anne Sebba. This is not a book to enjoy. It is a book to pull you up short and consider the good fortune of living in the 21st century in a country with no experience of enemy occupation. It is ferociously well-researched, amplifying our understanding of the depths of barbarity which the Germans meted out to French women in situ in France, and after their subsequent deportation. French complicity in the round up of the Jewish population is examined in depth as is the disparity in the treatment of returning Jewish deportees from the Resistance deportees.
It is a long harrowing read and needs considerable stamina to continue as the details are unimaginably bleak. But it is worth it. The closing chapters are very thought-provoking. They reveal (among other things) how the de Gaulle government manipulated the emphasis of media reporting once the initial purges of collaborators had taken place and analyses the difficulty deportees had reintegrating into society.
It is also an account of how French culture defiantly retained its place in the world despite the German onslaught. Attempts to pillage French art treasures and transfer haute-couture to Berlin were thwarted. The coverage is good of Picasso’s reasons for staying put in Paris and continuing to work, despite the exodus of other artists. And overall the book is a corrective to the post-war glamourizing of the activities of the Resistance.
We were evenly split over whether the immense weight of detail was irritating or whether it was necessary to provide every last fact in order to refute Holocaust deniers.
In terms of evaluating the narrative thread, each individual woman’s story was at times difficult to keep separate in the mind as the action progressed. Several of the SOE agents for example just blend into each other until their very shocking ends are retold. So hard to read if, like a lot of us do, you usually read very quickly.
The book memorialises the hideous sacrifice made by many women to achieve the salvation of France. And it inhabits the mind for quite a few days after completing – the very definition of a good read.