Book Review: Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Book - Paris Echo by Sebastian FaulksParis Echo, the latest novel by Sebastian Faulks, explores our complex relationship with history, glimpsed through the lives of two very different characters in modern-day Paris. Hannah and Tariq end up in Paris for different reasons, but they are both searching for something, and they are both haunted by the ghosts of the past. We see the city through the eyes of two outsiders, with all its quirks and contradictions.   

Hannah is an American post-doctoral researcher, returning to the city ten years after her first visit, determined to put her own past behind her. She is fascinated by the lives of others, researching the stories of those young women who lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation. But she soon realises that there are two sides to every story, uncovering not only tales of brave young women who fought in the resistance and died for their country, but also the triumphant betrayal of those who reported them to the authorities.

Tariq is a young man bored with his small-town life in Morocco and keen to explore the world, ignorant of much but curious to discover what happened to his mother when she lived in Paris as a young woman. He becomes obsessed with the Métro, travelling from one area of Paris to another, mesmerised by the Parisian women that he meets, and amazed at how the past has shaped the names of streets and Métro stations.

We see the strange relationship that human beings have with the past. Hannah and Tariq live in the present, yet they both begin to see echoes of occupied Paris everywhere they go. Past and present begin to merge, until the line between them becomes blurred. Are modern-day Parisians still throwing down their Métro tickets folded into a ‘V’ for victory? And who is the mysterious woman that Tariq begins to follow around the city?

This is a book which interrogates our relationship with the past, bringing into sharp relief that contrast between what happens when we remember and what happens when we forget. Here is Tariq imagining the Jewish families who were rounded up for transportation at Drancy:

“Did it matter if once, more than sixty years ago, some terrible things had been done here? I would bet any money that none of the people living here now, mostly immigrants by the look of it, knew or even cared about it. They had their own difficulties…

…My eyes were squeezed shut with the effort and I heard the sound of children’s footsteps going up the stairs. I was with them, just for a moment, right behind them, as they climbed, watching the calf muscles of their bare legs. And I hoped that maybe it would have meant something to them to know that many years later, someone, even just a nobody from Africa like me, would come to listen to their voices.”

Faulks has created the perfect scenario in which to explore Europe’s complicated relationship with its own horrific past. Tariq and Hannah are unlikely companions, but their strange connection appears to benefit both of them, as Hannah teaches Tariq the history of the place where his mother was born, and Tariq shows Hannah that sometimes the past should be left behind, where it belongs.

I love the contrast between these two characters – Tariq’s naivety, his enthusiasm for life, his catchphrase – “frozen fireballs!” and his teenage obsessions, versus Hannah with her willingness to help others, while she buries her own pain beneath the surface, focusing instead on the lives of those long gone. Although the plot felt a little too open-ended, this lack of closure does emphasise the continuity of the present in which we live, and the tangled nature of human interaction, as we each try our best to make decisions, not always understanding the full consequences of our actions.

Paris Echo is a book which does not flinch when confronting the trauma of a past fraught with confusion and betrayal. It shows us what can happen when we forget, and what happens when we remember, and reveals both options to be painful. It has made me want to visit Paris, to explore the streets which were, for a time, the site of violence, of persecution, of collaboration, not so very long ago.

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