Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Warmth

Day 5 of my countdown to Christmas and I am thinking about how lucky I am to be warm. Stormy weather is forecast for today which, with the recent drop in temperature, makes it a day best spent hibernating. I am sitting at my desk, wrapped in a duvet, a warm cup of coffee by my side. I feel cosy and content.

My preparations for Christmas are starting to take shape. I do just about all of my shopping on line these days so have been browsing the internet and placing orders each evening. The interesting looking parcels and boxes are starting to arrive and the items on my ‘to do’ lists are gradually being ticked off.

I realise, of course, how lucky I am. We have never been a family that has gone overboard with gift buying, but I know that there are many people who would struggle to afford the presents that we exchange. We are blessed in so many ways with our health, each other and the comforts we enjoy. I am thankful for all of this.

I pulled a new book from my shelves this morning as I felt I was ready to immerse myself in another world. After reading a good book I require recovery time so do not always have one on the go. An ending, no matter how satisfactory, forces me to set aside the characters whose lives I have become involved with. Sometimes it can be a regretful goodbye as I do not wish to leave their world. A good book is so precious and powerful.

The book I selected this morning has turned out to be an excellent choice for where I currently am in my life. It was recommended to me by a Facebook friend who I have also met in person on a couple of occasions. I believe that I would enjoy getting to know her better should the opportunity arise so her recommendation was of interest.

The book is ‘Human Traces’ by Sebastian Faulks. I have had mixed experiences with this author. I would highly recommend ‘Birdsong’ to anyone, it is a rare and brilliantly written book. I also thought ‘Engleby’ was excellent, so powerful and thought provoking. ‘Charlotte Grey’ disappointed me though as I found it weak compared to his other tales. As Engleby proved, I do not need to like the protagonist, but Charlotte Grey’s behaviour did not strike me as consistent; for a supposedly clever woman she behaved foolishly. ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ was entertaining but lacked depth. It was not a bad book, worth reading, but not as good as some of his others.

I had bought ‘Human Traces’ when it was recommended but knew nothing about the plot until I picked it up today. It turns out to be about two psychiatrists, which is apt and interesting to me, particularly at this time. I am currently in week five of a six week, distance learning psychology course offered by the University of Warwick. Naturally I am interested in the subject matter or I would not have signed up but, even so, the course has exceeded my expectations.

I enjoy being made to think and the videoed lectures, interviews and reading matter certainly generate plenty of new thoughts. They have introduced me to concepts and ideas about how the human mind functions and how we, as humans, cope with and react to life’s variety of situations. I hope that my recent learning will enhance my enjoyment of a book that explores this subject when it was in it’s infancy as far as the medical establishment was concerned. From his previous books I deduce that Sebastian Faulks carefully researches his subject matter before spinning a readable and sometimes demanding tale around it. I have high hopes that I will enjoy this one.

As part of my course I have been doing a lot of thinking about myself and those I know. Not the introspective naval gazing that can be selfishly destructive and judgemental, but a more dispassionate appraisal of behaviour and why we act as we do. A six week, part time course with a little additional reading is only ever going to offer a taster for such a complex subject, but a little learning can be enough to stretch the mind. I may feel better in myself after physical exercise, but I do enjoy exercising my mind rather more.

The strong winds outside are doing their best to blow the last of the leaves from the trees, and into my garden that I so carefully raked and cleared of debris earlier in the week. I will not be venturing out today though, other than to care for my hens. Rather I will curl up with my book and allow myself to be cocooned in the warmth of my home. I will relish this comfort as I immerse myself in a new and hopefully captivating world.

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