Lead review (novel set in PARIS, past and present….)
- Book: Paris Echo
- Location: Paris
- Author: Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks, renowned Francophile, sets his new novel in Paris and his affection for and knowledge of that city is apparent in every page. Paris Echo gives us a detailed look at Paris today – not the city that the tourists see but rather what lies behind that glamorous façade for this is the Paris of migrant workers and lost souls. So vivid is the description of travelling around Paris by metro that the novel could well serve as a sort of tourist guide for visitors who want a different view of the city and its varied inhabitants. But the story also dips back in time to Paris of the 1940’s under Nazi occupation and Faulks keeps in the forefront of the reader’s mind the way in which echoes of the past can be ever detected in the present.
There are two narrators, Tariq, a nineteen-year-old Moroccan runaway and Hannah, a thirty-something year old American academic, who come together when Hannah agrees to allow Tariq to occupy her spare room. Tariq has fled from his middle-class family in Tangiers with some vague idea of finding out about his mother’s history. Hannah is a postdoctoral researcher writing about Parisian women during the Occupation; she is not just interested in the past, but stuck in her own past, ruminating over a failed love affair with a Russian playwright, which has left her emotionally scarred and frightened to engage with life.
Tariq finds work for himself in a disgusting fast food shop in the banlieues where he learns about the iniquities of French society from his boss, specifically the treatment of pieds-noirs (French-Europeans, resident in Algeria) and the Harkis (Muslim Algerians on the side of the French during the Algerian war of independence). When he’s not at work, Tariq occupies himself by riding about the Paris metro, usually high on cannabis, meeting interesting characters and puzzling over the strange place names.
Faulks’ characterisation in Paris Echo is masterful. The young Tariq is sheer delight – a perfect nineteen-year-old mix of innocence and optimism – fleeing his past and intent on experiencing the present life to the full, particularly if that means ridding himself of his virginity. There are wonderful touches of humour in his lack of knowledge and disregard for the past which are revealed through Tariq’s musing over the significance of place names “It was all I could do not to dance along … past the Lycee Claude Monet (I know. Don’t tell me. Revolutionary Leader? Chemist?)” Hannah is a much subtler portrayal and harder to access, which is probably deliberate – she has withdrawn from the present and will not allow others (including the reader) access.
The novel’s real strength, though, lies in its plot which takes us with the central characters through an exploration of the past and attempts to make some sense of the at-times-confusing present to a satisfying conclusion. The sections focussing on Hannah’s research into the wartime lives of Parisian women provide some very moving and often shocking reading and certainly leave the reader pondering similarities between the past and present in terms of how minorities are treated.
This is a wonderful, thought-provoking and, at times, puzzling novel making you think carefully about the ways in which past and present interweave.