All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

Between April 7 and July 15, 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Twa people were murdered by the Hutu majority of Rwanda. The Rwandan Genocide is the kind of event that people who survived it will never fully recover from. It’s the kind of horrific event that forever stains the name and history of a country. In All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (pitch-perfectly translated by Alison Anderson), we see how the long shadow of the Genocide still smothers Rwandans decades later through the eyes of Blanche and her mother, Immaculata. Mairesse also shows us the stark divides between black and white, speech and silence, healing and long death.

Blanche is well aware of the irony of her name. In France, she goes by Barbra. Even though Blanche is half-French, through her father, she will never been anything other than an African to the French people she lives among. Blanche left her hometown of Butare, in southern Rwanda, near the start of the genocide. Her mother stayed behind and narrowly managed to survive. Immaculata stayed because her son, Bosco, joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front. All three family members manage to physically survive the violence, but all suffer deep, emotional scars that leave them forever changed.

As the narrative switches back and forth between Blanche and Immaculata, we learn more about their lives before and after the genocide and Rwandan Civil War. Before their world ended, Immaculata was torn between her two children. Blanche represents Immaculata’s desire to rise above the limitations placed on her by poverty, by expectations of her gender, and by the lingering racism of colonial rule. For a long time, Immaculata would only speak to her daughter in French and briefly forbid her family from teaching her Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda. Blanche does learn Kinyarwanda eventually, but her mother’s drive to Europeanize her daughter leaves Blanche feeling like a perpetual foreigner in the country where she was born. Immaculata’s other child, Bosco, was fathered by a Tutsi population, a man who was Immaculata’s first love. We don’t learn much about who Bosco is. We only know what happens to him through Immaculata’s reports to Blanche. Unlike Blanche, Bosco is never pushed into anything. Instead, he seems to represent for Immaculata her authentic, Tutsi Rwandan self, or perhaps her self-destructive choices.

What fascinated me most about All Your Children, Scattered was the role that speaking or not-speaking play. After Bosco’s death, Immaculata stops speaking. She goes silent. Meanwhile, Blanche switches between French and Kinyarwanda to try and express everything. She uses both languages to try and teach her own son where she comes from. Yet, for all her words, Blanche fails to reach Immaculata in Immaculata’s profound grief over her lost Bosco. How can words ever express that kind of sorrow? Or the fear that Immaculata felt while she was hiding from Hutu forces that wanted to kill her and everyone like her? I was reminded of all the books, articles, and documentaries that have been created about the Holocaust. There’s an ocean of words out there that can teach us what happened but they all seem to fall short of fully capturing the experience of being hunted and murdered simply because one group of people believes that your group should be exterminated.

And yet, for all that, life does carry on. Immaculata’s family lives in her daughter and her grandson. The fact that we see the characters slowly heal over the years gives this book—which like I said is about one of the most horrific crimes in history—a hardwon sense of hope. Somehow, it is possible to find peace. Somehow, it is possible to find the words to connect with others and the world. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand all of the choices Mairesse made in this book (I’m frankly baffled by the allegorical story near the end) but I will say that it was a harrowing and beautiful read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Days Come and Go, by Hemley Boum

Trigger warnings for brief depictions of domestic violence and rape.

Some families seem cursed. Whether you believe that it’s divine retribution or a supernatural haunting or epigenetics, some people just seem doomed to follow the same path as their ancestors. The reason we read about families like the one depicted in Hemley Boum’s Days Come and Go and other literary family sagas, I think, is in the hope that one of the family’s scions will find a way to break the curse. The women of the sprawling Cameroonian family at the heart of Days Come and Go seem to be cursed in love. Three generations in a row, we see women get caught up in relationships at a critical moment in their young lives. The early promises of those relationships—love, belonging, social status, financial security, parenthood—are broken early, leaving Anna, Abi, and Tina to rediscover their solitary selves. Days Come and Go is skillfully translated by Nchanji Njamnsi.

Days Come and Go is told in roughly chronological order, after some present-day sections that help establish the relationships between our three narrators. As far as I can tell, the novel spans from the 1950s to 2015. When we first meet her, Anna, the matriarch, is dying of cancer. Her daughter, Abi, is torn between caring for Anna and dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce. One of Anna’s nurses tells Abi that Anna has been talking about her past, suggesting that Abi listen in. Anna’s revelations take us back to her girlhood in a remote Cameroonian village. She tells us how a missionary smoothed the way for Anna to get a French education: all Anna has to give up is her non-European name and work her fingers to the bone to get it. She slowly loses contact with the woman who raised her and reshapes herself into the good subject that the Europeans want her to be. Around the time Cameroon becomes independent, in 1960, Anna means her husband in a whirlwind of youthful idealism and rebelliousness, only to find herself trapped by pregnancy and in-laws who despise her.

When the novel comes back around to Abi’s story, we find her in the last days of her marriage. Her husband discovers that Abi has been having a long-term affair. The betrayal brings out a frightening, ugly side to Abi’s husband and rips their small family into pieces. Just like with her mother Anna, Abi has to confront the realization that people only really show you who they are when they’re under pressure. It might be the pressure to conform to racial prejudices or the dictates of a mother-in-law or humiliation.

The last narrator’s story is the most harrowing. Tina is not a biological member of Anna’s family but, as an orphan, she was informally adopted into Anna’s household. When her dearest friend becomes religious, Tina is so lonely that she joins the local mosque, too. It’s not until far too late that Tina and her friend realize that they’ve been recruited into Boko Haram. By then, it’s impossible for them to escape with their lives. Thankfully, Anna is able to use her husband’s contacts in the Cameroonian government and military to help Tina escape.

The details in the women’s stories vary but they all share the same rough arc. (There are some hints that Tina might be the one to break the family curse.) They all dive deeply into relationships with people they don’t really know. Anna’s husband had a controlling family and a taste for the kind of finer things that only lots of money can buy. Abi’s husband saw her as a possession; he was shockingly misogynist for a man who professed to be a lovely family man. Tina’s friend nursed a deep sense of rejection that led her to a fundamentalist group of terrorists that later killed her.

What are we to make of these stories? Should we stay away from all-encompassing relationships? Do we have to give up on love and kinship and friendship? In spite of all the heartache and pain the women experience in Days Come and Go, I think that the narrators in this story wouldn’t say that we have to give up any of these relationships. Instead, I think they’d say: keep your eyes open. I think they’d also say: you don’t need another person to make you whole. And I think that, in the end, they would say: we are stronger and more resilient than we realize.

The lake in Parcour vita, Douala, Cameroon. Much of the story takes place in Douala. (Image via Wikicommons)

At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop

Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.

Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.

The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.

Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.

Five soldiers from the 43rd Tirailleurs battalion, c. 1914-1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Trigger warning for rape.

In the nineteenth century, a woman could be diagnosed with hysteria for an array of symptoms that range from hallucinations, epilepsy, and depression to irritability, menstrual pain, or doing too much/too little of something that bothered the men in her life. Hysteria could get a woman locked away for life in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other places until doctors were able to differentiate illness and mental disorders from normal behavior. This terrifies me and fascinates me, so a book like Victoria Mas’s The Mad Women’s Ball (smoothly translated by Frank Wynne) is my equivalent of watching a horror movie. I get chills. I wonder what I would do. Then I recommend it to other people so that I can spread the feeling around.

Historically, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studied women with hysteria and other illnesses (or not) at the notorious Paris hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. His practice involved “lectures,” during which patients would be hypnotized so that they would perform muscle contractures, paralysis, and other physical symptoms of their “illness.” I’m using a lot of danger quotes here because Charcot’s actions and patient diagnoses were perfectly acceptable at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, we know a lot more about mental illness, conversion disorders, human behavior, etc. Also, we have medical ethics that would prevent Charcot’s lectures/performances. Charcot is a tertiary character in The Mad Women’s Ball. Two of the main characters, however, share names with one of Charcot’s most famous patients, Louise Augustine Gleizes.

Geneviève Gleizes is the head nurse of one of the wards at Salpêtrière. She maintains order on the ward with a firmness that masks a surprising brittleness. At first, Geneviève is a rock, but it isn’t long before we start to see that she’s suppressing grief for her deceased sister. Then there’s Louise, Charcot’s patient du jour, who performs at his lectures in an effort to become famous. Sort of. Lastly, we meet Eugénie. I’m not sure if she’s based on a historical figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugénie, who sees ghosts, was based on one of the many women who had successful careers contacting the other side during the height of the Spiritualist craze. Eugénie and Geneviève immediately put each other’s backs up. Geneviève is offended when Eugénie claims to see and hear Geneviève’s sister. Eugénie just wants to get out of the Salpêtrière and Geneviève represents everything that’s holding her prisoner.

The Mad Women’s Ball rushes by. It plays out over the weeks before the eponymous event, where the wealthy of Paris are invited into Salpêtrière to see the patients dressed up in costumes for their entertainment. The whirlwind plot makes it seem like everything is spiraling out of control just that much faster as the characters lose their grip on their equilibrium. This makes the book sound a lot more grim than I think it is because, while things are falling apart, all three of the primary characters are learning. Louise learns to shed her naiveté. Eugénie learns what it takes to be free. And Geneviève learns to let go of “sanity” so that she can finally feel her emotions. This book is a master class in character development and plotting. And it definitely made me feel the frisson of terror I was expecting at the same time that I marveled at the story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887. Charcot (the grey-haired man just right of center) is shown with his patient, Marie “Blanche” Wittman, and some of the leading lights of European medicine at the end of the nineteenth century. (Image via Wikipedia)

A Radical Act of Free Magic, by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry draws her sprawling historical fantasy to an abrupt close in A Radical Act of Free Magic. The first half of the duology, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, created a world of suppressed magic that erupted into the French and Haitian Revolutions. Now we see a magically boosted Napoleon attempting to steamroll across Europe. With a kraken. And a dragon.

Where A Declaration had plots running in tandem, connected by a character it would be a spoiler to talk too much about, the plots coalesce geographically in A Radical Act. Fina makes the long journey from Haiti to Great Britain so that most of the action takes place in London or William Pitt’s various residences. There are some amazing set pieces in Egypt and Trafalgar that people who know Regency history will know the significance of. (Sadly, there isn’t one for Waterloo.)

The battles liven up an awful lot of dialogue about what kind of world the various characters want to create. William Wilberforce and Fina cross verbal swords with Pitt about abolition, who keeps putting it off to focus on fighting a war and maintaining power against idiots who would muck it all up. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his (supposed) magical ally are sparring over who will eventually rule over continental Europe. Will there ever be meaningful progress? Or will Fina and Wilberforce have to grudgingly content themselves with gradualism? Will their enemies win and push Great Britain and Europe back into the dark ages? How on earth will our heroes defeat that dragon?

A Declaration gave me high hopes for this duology. I love a solid historical fantasy that blends magic with actual historical events. A Radical Act of Free Magic, however, felt more like a middle book than the second half of a two-book series. Characters are shuffled around so that they’ll be in place for showdowns or whatever the plot cooks up for them. Plans are discussed. Philosophies are delved into. It happens at a fairly leisurely pace that made me think that there was going to be another book after this one for a great big resolution. Also, who brings Napoleon into a book and doesn’t include the Battle of Waterloo? I had fun during parts of this book, but the rushed ending killed a lot of my enjoyment of this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray

Note: This book was originally scheduled to come out in June 2021. According to Edelweiss, the expected publication date has been pushed to March 2022 on the date of this writing.

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray, is a bold book. So many other books about war, fiction or non, discuss the horror of war, occasionally the glory, often the heroism. But only rarely do books about war juxtapose the war dead with the victims of murder. Seeing the two so closely together forces us to try and spot the difference—and wonder if there even is a difference. And Two Storm Wood does this in addition to giving us a love story and psychological drama. This book is an emotional roller coaster.

Amy Vanneck is a romantic. So much so that she travelled across from England to France to find the remains of her secret fiancé at the beginning of Two Storm Wood. (Secret because Amy’s mother, Lady Constance, disapproves of her daughter marrying someone from the lower classes.) As she is told over and over, the former battlefields of northwestern France are no place for a lady. The people who tell her this aren’t wrong because most of the action of this book takes place near the zone rouge—land that was cordoned off so that no one would be killed by all the unexploded ordnance and toxic ground that’s still there more than a century later. But as I said, Amy is a romantic, and determined enough to walk into that to find what’s left of the man she loved.

At the same time that we follow Amy’s efforts to track down her fiancé, we also follow Captain James Mackenzie. Mackenzie is in charge of a group of British soldiers and Chinese laborers (who are subject to constant, appalling racism by the British officers who are bossing them around) who are collecting the remains of British soldiers who died to be reinterred in mass graves. Along with collecting those remains for reburial, Mackenzie tries to collect every clue he can so that the soldiers his crew finds can hopefully be buried with a name. It’s a noble mission. It’s also very dangerous work, being done by men who want to go home as soon as possible. It’s also work that brings Amy to Mackenzie. He and his men are digging near Two Storm Wood, the last place Amy knows where her fiancé was before she lost contact.

Unexploded WWI ordinance near Ypres in 2004 (Image via Wikicommons)

Meanwhile, a man known as Major Westbrook (but who we know is not Major Westbrook, because we saw this man smother the real Westbrook in the prologue) inveigles himself into the story by claiming to have orders to investigate what might be a war crime at Two Storm Wood. Thirteen men were tortured and murdered there before the end of the war. Most would be content to write the deaths off as another Hunnish atrocity—except for the fact that that part of the line was in British hands at the time.

Amy, Mackenzie, and Westbrook follow all the clues they can get their hands on as they try to solve their various mysteries. From our vantage point as readers, we can see that they all have different ends of the same stick. The plots converge near the end of the novel into a spectacular running chase along the edges of the zone rouge as all the secrets finally come out.

Two Storm Wood is a book I wish I had read as a member of a book group, because I would love to talk through all the questions this book tosses up. What do we owe the dead? Is it right for governments to use their soldiers’ lives in a conflict like World War II? What is the moral definition of a war crime? What is the difference between a death as a result of murder and death as the result of an enemy bullet? I hope you readers out there remember this book when it does come out so that we can finally talk about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Crossings, by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin’s Crossings is the kind of book that I’ve been waiting for, but not because of its content. With the exception of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels—which I was a big fan of when I was younger—we generally read books from page 1 straight through until the end. We might have footnotes to break up our linear progression. Some rare readers might jump back and forth in nonfiction books to read endnotes. I’m surprised that it’s taken someone this long to write a book that capitalizes on the ebook format to give you options as to the order in which you can read it.

An introduction by a modern-day bookbinder sets up the strange journey ahead of us readers. The bookbinder tells us that the baroness who gave him the book to bind dies before he can complete the job. The book binder’s wife reads the manuscript and, together, they tell us that we can read the book either straight from the beginning to the end…or we can read it in the order the baroness presented it in. Being a traditional sort of person—as well as being a little bit paranoid that I might mess up the baroness’ ordering—I read the book from cover to cover. (I did skip around using the links to see what the baroness’ order might be like.)

Portrait of Baudelaire c. 1844, by Emile Deroy (Image via Wikicommons)

Funny enough, the traditional ordering tells the overall story out of order. (What even is order, at this point?) We’re taken to Brussels in the mid-1800s. Poet and gadfly Charles Baudelaire is down on his luck. He is living at a down-at-heel hotel in a city he loathes to escape his debts back in Paris. After a disastrous dinner with some of the few people who might be willing to lend him a franc, Charles is approached by a woman who claims to be his long-lost lover. The problem is that his lover disappeared years ago and, more importantly, this woman doesn’t look anything like Jeanne Duval. This meeting is our introduction to a strange story that stretches from the eighteenth century in the South Pacific to 1830s New Orleans to Paris on the eve of World War II.

Landragin blends together actual history—Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin‘s deaths, French colonizing in the South Pacific, American slavery—with fiction to create Crossings. I’m not sure what having two orders for the chapters added anything, to be honest, I really liked reading this book from cover to cover and sinking deeper into the mystery of how souls from a South Pacific island jump from body to body to travel thousands of miles and hundreds of years. The first crossing happened by accident when an indigenous man was killed by a French sailor. He and his lover reflexively crossed into two of the French crew. After that, crossing (and displacing resident souls) turns into a means of perhaps reuniting in the future…and as a method for gaining power and immortality.

Readers who like unconventional stories or stories that blend history with fantasy in original ways might enjoy puzzling their way through Crossings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, by H.G. Parry

The Enlightenment, but make it magicians. That little phrase made frequent appearances in my brain as I read H.G. Parry’s delightful historical fantasy, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. The cast of characters included real historical figures such as William Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, and Toussaint Louverture, and three countries in a re-imagined version of our world. The fight for liberty is very similar, except in this version the poor and oppressed are fighting for liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the right to practice magic. Knowledge of the actual history isn’t necessary, but those who remember from high school and college will get a kick out of how close Parry hews to real events while still writing an enchanting tale.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians opens with one character, an African woman renamed Fina by her captors, in a slave ship on her way to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Her harrowing opening offers one view of the stakes characters are fighting for. We slowly learn that, centuries before the events of this novel, vampire kings ruled Europe. They were removed at great cost, but remnants of their harsh rule remain. No one but aristocrats and royalty are allowed to practice magic. Commoners and enslaved people are subject to harsh magics and penalties if they use their natural talents. By the time the 1780s roll around, enslaved people on Saint-Domingue and the poor in France and England have had enough.

After Fina’s introduction to the harsh world of the 1780s, the novel splits into three parts. In Fina’s third of the story, we see a revolution erupt as the enslaved people break free of their magical and physical restraints and seize their freedom. In France, Maximilien Robespierre rises from obscure rural lawyer to revolutionary leader who overthrows the ancien régime—with the help of a shadowy figure who promises power in exchange for “favors.” In England, William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce are taking a more gradual approach to change by trying to nudge parliament into expanding the rights of common magicians and banning the slave trade and slavery (respectively). Two of the revolutions (Haiti and France) are nightmares of fear, blood, and fire but, in contrast, Britain’s slow progress feels painfully slow.

The role of rhetoric, surprisingly enough, plays a bigger role in A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians than magic itself. The walls of the House of Commons are even enchanted to respond to particularly great oratory. Thus, there are many conversations where characters discuss how far they need to go and how they should proceed. I daresay the conversations depicted here mirror historical conversations had by their historical counterparts (you know, minus the details about magic) as they plotted their revolutions and political maneuvers. These conversations thankfully don’t bog down the narrative. Rather, they had me thinking about how far I might go to win my rights if they had been stripped away or entirely suppressed by an unjust government. The book also had me wondering what kind of magical ability I might want if I lived in Parry’s world. There are also plenty of battles—notably the storming of the Bastille—to keep things interesting.

I had a great time reading A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians and would definitely recommend it to fans of historical fantasy and alternate histories. Parry is absolutely brilliant at blending fact and fiction. The characters jump right off the page (Desmoulins is a particular favorite of mine and Wilberforce is a goddamned hero here and in actual history) as Parry brings them back to life, with the added twist of sometimes being able to do magic. Even the fact that the book ends on a cliffhanger wasn’t that much of a problem for me. I normally hate cliffhangers but this book would probably have been another 500 pages long if Parry had tried to resolve everything in one volume. I will definitely stay tuned for the next installment of Parry’s fantastical history of revolutions.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Frontispiece of Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions, c. 1815 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

Being a teenager sucks. I certainly wasn’t fond of it. Like Lily, one of the protagonists of Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel The Paris Library, I was annoyed by my friends, irritated by well-meant advice from adults, and couldn’t wait to be grown up and independent. Lily and I even grew up in the intermountain west in towns that people leave in droves. The similarities end there because Lily is a massive francophile who lost her mother at a critical age. Thankfully, Lily has Odile Souchet to guide her through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. She provides Lily with desperately needed perspective in that she can provide real examples of the consequences of jealousy, petty revenge, and all of our ugly little emotions—because Odile came of age during a world war, when the stakes were a lot higher than a broken heart.

The Paris Library flips back and forth from World War II to the mid-1980s. Lily’s narrative, set in the 80s, shows Lily growing close to Odile through impromptu French lessons and some substitute mothering. Her friendship with Odile helps Lily find her self-confidence while contending with loss, an absent father, and a surprisingly fertile stepmother who is a scant ten years older than Lily. The other narrative, Odile’s, is based on the author’s own interest and curiosity in the American Library in Paris. The library and some of its real-life staff form part of the cast of The Paris Library.

An undated photo of the American Library (Image via Wikicommons)

I’m not going to lie. Odile’s story was more interesting to me than Lily’s. In 1939, Odile lived a charmed life in Paris. Sure, her parents were overbearing and her father keeps bringing home potential suitors from the police station (he’s a commissaire), but her library degree and love of reading* help her achieve her dream job at the American Library. She even manages to meet a cute young policeman who helps her stand up to her very traditional father. Even the War, at least during the first few months, doesn’t really touch Odile. When France is occupied and Paris fills up with Nazis, Odile does her small bit to fight back: she helps deliver books to library patrons who are no longer allowed to go into public spaces such as Jewish people and foreigners from countries the Nazis are at war with.

It’s only in the last third or so of The Paris Library that my big question–how on earth did a Parisienne end up in rural Montana?—started to be answered. Lily commits a big sin. She snoops around in Odile’s things while she is away, and discovers old letters that Lily immediately misinterprets. And thus, lessons are (eventually) learned about forgiveness and how to avoid impulsive bad ideas.

I found a few missteps in The Paris Library, but they’re just small things about being a librarian. I only saw them because I work in a library and with librarians all the time (see note). Otherwise, I found this book to be a solid tale about very human people who, for whatever reason, have to learn that there are costs to be paid when we act in the heat of the moment. Odile pays a very high price. Lily gets off lightly in comparison. Because of its characters and subject matter, I think The Paris Library would be fantastic reading for parents of teenage daughters who don’t mind stepping into the perspective of a teenager and a very young woman for 400 pages. This book is a very good reminder of just how much it sucks to be a teenager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


* There’s an inside joke among librarians that you shouldn’t say that you want to be a librarian because you want to read. First, we all love to read so we just assume this about anyone who applies. Second, actually being a librarian is more about people than it is about books—but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.