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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on November 6, 2018

Tariq Zafar lives in Morocco but, at the age of 19, quits college in defiance of his widowed father, smuggles himself into France in the back of a truck, and hitchhikes to Paris, where his Algerian-French mother grew up. A streetwise young woman named Sandrine joins him for part of the trip and hangs out with him in Paris before wandering out of the story.

Hannah, an American in her early 30s, is making her second trip to Paris. She is turning her postgraduate thesis into a book chapter on French women in occupied Paris. She hopes her stay in Paris will be one of “pure thought,” but the reader knows that isn’t likely.

Hannah encounters Sandrine and, through her, meets Tariq. Hannah and Tariq become friends of a sort, but their greater connection comes from the photograph of a woman they see in a book, a woman they name Clémence. When Tariq begins to encounter Clémence in person, the encounters seem too surreal to be real. I’m actually not sure what to make of those scenes; perhaps more astute readers can educate me.

Tariq’s fantasies of the city do not match the reality it offers to a penniless Moroccan, but over the course of the novel, Tariq’s observations of diverse Parisians teach him that there are many ways of living. His experiences (both positive and negative) encourage him to think about the future that might be best for him. When Tariq ponders whether he should return to Morocco, he can make that decision as someone who has gained confidence, a bit of worldliness, and a sense of history, so in that sense Paris Echo is a coming of age novel.

Hannah has already come of age, but it is never too late to grow, and Hannah does that by the novel’s end. Her investigation of the past introduces her to the French resistance and the much larger population of French collaborationists, but her focus is on ordinary women who simply wanted to survive the occupation, sometimes by cozying up to German soldiers, sometimes by avoiding them. Hannah identifies with a woman named Mathilde as she listens to her recorded history, until Mathilde admits to having taken an act of revenge after being betrayed by her boyfriend. She also feels sympathy for a woman named Juliette, who befriended a German at a time when most Parisians supported Germany and hated the British, but was later denounced as a collaborator after Parisians switched their allegiance following France’s liberation.

Much of Hannah’s intellectual story is about remembering the past (rather than ignoring it or, worse, altering history to make it more comforting) and understanding the connection between the past and the present. But as much as Hannah wants to live a life of pure thought in Paris, her story parallels Tariq’s in her realization that there are many ways to live. Hannah must decide whether emotion should balance thought as she chooses her future.

Sebastian Faulk’s prose is notable for its fluid intelligence. The plot of Paris Echo can be seen as the two separate stories of Hannah and Tariq, stories that happen to intersect but that only influence each other in limited ways. Tariq’s story appealed to me more than Hannah’s, perhaps because the outcome of Hannah’s story is predictable, but Hannah’s research into the ways that Parisian women lived during the German occupation of Paris gives her story added depth. Paris Echo created too little dramatic tension to trigger my “wow” response, but the story succeeds on multiple levels, making it easy to recommend as a rewarding investment of a reader’s time.


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