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The Storyteller of Casablanca by Fiona Valpy

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

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The Storyteller of Casablanca by Fiona Valpy is published with Lake Union (Amazon Publishing) and is described as an ‘evocative tale of love, hope and second chances from the bestselling author of The Dressmaker’s Gift….a rich and immersive novel inspired by the true stories of French refugees seeking safe haven in Casablanca during the Second World War.’

Before I get started on my thoughts, I must mention that throughout the novel Fiona Valpy scatters numerous historical figures, which adds a very authentic layer to the story. These incredible individuals took great risks and their bravery will never be forgotten.

“One of the most famous arrivals was Josephine Baker, the barrier-breaking African American singer and dancer. She made the journey to North Africa when the Nazis took control of Paris, nailing a sign to the door of the Folies-Bergère which read ‘Access Forbidden to Dogs and Jews’. But Josephine refused to be cowed and spent the following years using her talents as an entertainer as cover for her work as a French resistance agent, carrying messages written in invisible ink on sheets of music back and forth between Morocco and Portugal.” – Fiona Valpy, The real-life characters who inspired The Storyteller Of Casablanca

The novel, set in Morocco, is split into two distinct timelines, 1941 and 2010. Zoe arrived in Casablanca in 2010 looking for a change. Her marriage to Tom is shattering around her and she seems unable to stop the pieces from crashing down. A stranger in a strange country, Zoe struggles with immersing herself in the local culture. There is a buzzing ex-pat community already in situ and Zoe is welcomed into the fold, but she is reticent. Zoe is distant around others now, a shell of her former self, wanting to spend time alone with her daughter Grace, away from the madding crowd and the heat, the smells and the sounds of Casablanca. Zoe is fearful to step outside with her anxiety levels peaking when she has to be anywhere new. Tom works hard and is drinking more than Zoe would like but she cannot reach out to him. They barely communicate as they pass each other by in this odd existence that has now become their norm.

One day when Tom is at work, Zoe makes an unexpected discovery of a journal hidden in the floorboards of one of the bedrooms. Zoe is very surprised to see that it is a diary belonging to a young girl, Josie Duval, recounting her time as a refugee in Casablanca with her family, following their escape from France in 1941. Josie’s family had plans to get to America and, through her words, Zoe and the readers are taken on an incredible journey back in time. Zoe becomes completely immersed in Josie’s story, encouraging her to check out the local library for more resources about those tumultuous days of the Second World War.

While Zoe struggles with her new life in Casablanca she does discover a passion for quilting, one that takes her on a very unanticipated path, while opening her eyes to a world she had known next-to-nothing about.

Every time Zoe picks up Josie’s diary she uncovers more aspects of the challenges faced by all those refugees who were forced from their homeland by the Nazi invasion. Josie is quite the precocious young lady on the cusp of becoming a teenager. She has a smart way about her and is very much aware of the enormity of what is taking place around her. At times I did find her maturity to be more suitable to an older child but I suspect wartime makes children grow up faster.

Casablanca is a character in its own right, with Fiona Valpy bringing the atmosphere of the city, as it is today and as it was in the 1940s, very much to life for the reader. What I found truly fascinating with this aspect of the book is that Fiona Valpy wrote it during the recent lockdown.

“Writing a novel about Casablanca during a global pandemic gave me a few extra challenges, but I enjoyed escaping lockdown and vicariously spending time wandering the markets and beaches of Morocco.”

Josie’s words and Zoe’s life blur a little when Zoe starts seeing Casablanca through a different lens, leading the reader down a truly extraordinary rabbit-hole. As I read the book I was constantly switching my allegiance from Zoe to Josie and back again as their stories and characters developed. With a slow build-up Zoe’s story reveals itself very gradually as the chapters unveil themselves. Josie’s fate keeps the reader on tenterhooks as it’s clear that the war is progressing and the difficulties are considerable for Josie and her family to make their escape to The States.

There is a very strong sense of the culture and tradition of a people, from the locals of Casablanca to the migrants of both the past and present. A melting pot of experiences and stories are interwoven into this gorgeous and atmospheric tale of love, loss, grief and determination. The Storyteller of Casablanca is a fascinating read but also a very educational one as you cannot help but research further the history of this multicultural city made famous by the movie of the same name.

Fiona Valpy has captured something very special in this tale. It is an enthralling, affecting and sentimental story that will grab the heart, soul and the imagination of all readers. The Storyteller of Casablanca is an intuitive read that engages and immerses the reader. A beautiful story.

(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)

Order your copy online here.

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