Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hidden histories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.

The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in 1941.

But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.

The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.

Sebastian Faulks

I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.

Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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41 thoughts on “Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

  1. You know, FictionFan, I’d likely be more interested in those stories from the past, myself. They seem compelling in their own right. And they tell about parts of history that I don’t know well enough. I heartily agree with you, too, about storytelling. Find the actual story, tell it, and then finish. I’m glad you enjoyed the writing style, and it does sound as though there are certainly things to like about this.

    • The war-time stories were very well done and convincing. I just felt he was trying to do too much and hadn’t really paid enough attention to the credibility of the present-day frame. But he is a great storyteller once he gets into his stride, and overall I thought it was well worth reading. 🙂

  2. This sounds like there are some great little historical stories hiding in a rather unlikely set-up, here. Occupied France is an interesting and somewhat subdued area of history that I would love to read about – and not just because of my fascination with ‘Allo Allo’. Which, by the way, has more convincing storylines than the pick-up-a-homeless-person premise. Can you really imagine anyone doing that? Even if they did, such things rarely end well. I love your observation about ‘find the actual story, tell it and then finish’. Quite right too. It appears the really good stories in this book are hampered by the unnecessary fluff of so-called fashionable storytelling.

    • Haha – not a single character mentioned the Madonna with the big…smile! What an omission! 😉 Yes, I think if you’re going to have a framing story then you have to make sure it’s credible. The stories from the Occupation felt much more authentic, but I think they’ve passed a law that all books must have at least two timelines now, plus an element of the supernatural… gah!

  3. I’m sure I would have the same reaction you did, FF. I agree with the comments of Lucy and Margot. This is a fascinating time period. Why try to make it more “interesting” with all of the other stuff when it is already interesting?

    • I do get tired of how complicated books seem to have become. If a story is strong – and the women’s Occupation stories in this are – then it will stand on its own without the need to add in extra timelines and so on. I could see he was trying to show the impact on modern France, but sometimes the reader can be trusted to see that herself…

    • I enjoyed Birdsong overall, though I had the same issue with it – too many unnecessary bits taking away from the main story. But he’s a great storyteller underneath it all – I just wish he’d use a simpler format to tell his stories…

  4. I haven’t read this one, the publishers not having so far seemed me worthy…but I did/do want to. However – a masterly and forthright sum re to-frame-or-not-to-frame. Fashions, what is in and what is not in, and the stampede of herds, literary as well as others, can be VERY wearing. As you say, there have been many extraordinary books which were written by starting at the beginning and continuing on to the end without adding devices

    • Oh, that’s a pity – I’m sure you’d love the women’s stories, though you might have the same problems as me with the present-day strand. Ha – thank you! I do get fed up with every book feeling it has to have a complicated and/or unique structure – sometimes I just want to read one story with one narrator in one timeline. Still, then I’d be moaning that no-one ever tries anything different! No pleasing some people… 😉

    • For me they definitely were and I wish he’d stuck to them. Yeah, it’s a lovely thought, but in reality I can’t imagine many people, and especially not a single woman in a strange city, taking in a homeless couple and giving them the run of the place…

  5. Do you think some authors are so successful that their editors are unable to advise/edit their works bluntly? They might have struggled telling him to stick to the story.
    Not sure that I’ll read this one, but have Birdsong on my list.

    • I think so, but I think in general editors are too weak these days – even debuts come out full of unnecessary padding. I blame the whole attitude of people only praising, never criticising – people actually feel bad about telling someone something’s not wonderful even when it clearly isn’t…

      • It starts in school, every child ‘wins’. I’m not sure that we’re actually doing them favours. I think it’s kinder to teach them that life isn’t fair and you may as well get used to it. As readers though, we rely on editors to do a job properly, and if an author can put their ego aside it is to their benefit.

        • I’m not sure it’s good for them either, and it does lead to an awful lot of whinging when they later discover that the adult world isn’t so kind. I do wonder what editors think their job is when I see some of the stuff that gets past them – I have a feeling a lot of them only correct grammar and spelling these days (and sometimes not even that!)

  6. I agree with RRN, what was going on with the editorial? Would a lesser known writer have got away with it? I would like to read this (eventually) but I’ll bear your comments in mind FF!

    • I know, but sometimes I think editors are just as soft on debuts – seems to me they don’t like to be critical!! 😉 I hope you enjoy it – overall I’m glad to have read it. The good definitely outweighed the less good for me.

  7. A brilliant review although I’m not sure I’d read this one even though you have given it 4 stars! I too wonder why it seems that some stories are overshadowed by the desire to have multiple layers when only one of them really works well. The part of me that wants to read the book is to hear the a more ‘truthful’ stories of the occupation because I have no doubt that in the retelling the history of this has been distorted.

    • It does seem to be a thing at the moment to make stories complex and leave the reader struggling to keep it all straight. Sometimes it works for me, but usually I just want to be told a straightforward story. The stories of the women in the Occupation were very well done though – I’d like to learn more about that period now.

    • Ha, yes! The art of stopping seems to have been lost recently! I’m torn about Faulks – when he tells a story his writing is great, but he does seem to feel the need to have too much going on…

    • I’ve read a couple by him and I love his writing, but not always his structures. They’re always worth reading, though, and knowing you enjoy stuff about WW2 I reckon you’ll enjoy this one – hope so! 😀

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