While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart is published by Headline and is described as ‘a luminous, powerful portrait of the brutality of war and the tenacity of love. In the tradition of Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans’.
Third culture children was a term I was unfamiliar with until I read from Ruth Druart’s author biography how it inspired her thoughts when writing While Paris Slept. Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) is a term that was created by US sociologists Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem in the 1950s, for children who spend their early years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. During the Second World War many children were displaced and Ruth Druart explores this theme in her novel.
David and Sarah are a Jewish couple living in Paris in 1944. In fear of their lives, they plan to leave Paris but are discovered by German soldiers and escorted to the internment centre at Drancy for deportation to Auschwitz. The terror and raw despair is palpable as Sarah urgently bundles her most prized possession into the arms of a railway worker begging, imploring him to take it and to keep it safe.
Charlotte and Jen-Luc are two young people who accidentally meet up in Paris and form an instant connection. Both working in jobs that they feel is a betrayal to their people, they want to do more, they want to feel less like collaborators and more like freedom fighters. Idealistic in many ways they are determined to do something to help. Many Parisians are keeping their heads down, keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves in fear of betrayal from family, friend and neighbour. Jean-Luc works for the railroad, a job he enjoys and has always excelled at, until the day the Germans marched into Paris. When he gets seconded to the railway station near Drancy, Jean-Luc and his colleagues are kept in the dark as to what is occurring there. They work when no trains are at the station. They see no one. But things change for Jean-Luc when he sees personal effects & more left blowing in the wind at the station. His stomach turns, his anger flares. He has to act but what can he do in the face of such terror?
The answer arrives one morning when an unexpected problem at the track results in Jean-Luc and a few others being awoken to fix it. What they witness that morning disgusts and horrifies all. They see first hand the cattle trucks being used and they see and hear the sound of human grief, panic and terror. When a woman thrusts an unexpected bundle at Jean-Luc, he knows what he has to do..
1953 Jean-Luc and Charlotte are settled into a new life. Leaving Paris behind them they have embarked on a new beginning, embracing a new culture, living the American dream. They chose to speak only English, to adopt many American ways of life and they are happy. Charlotte often thinks about life in France but Jean-Luc is determined to leave the past in Paris with the horrors they witnessed buried deep. But can we ever really escape our past? Can we ever truly forget? A knock on the door changes the lives of Charlotte and Jean-Luc forever as their peaceful existence is immediately torn asunder.
Ruth Druart transports the reader back to 1944 and to 1953 with incredible insights and authenticity. Living in Paris, Ruth Druart was very much impacted by the many memorial plaques scattered across Paris remembering those who fell during the war. When she passed a school in Le Marais, which traditionally was recognised as the Jewish quarter, with a plaque dedicated to two hundred and sixty children who were arrested, never to return home, Ruth Druart felt something within and set about writing this gorgeous and poignant account of what happens to those who survive. While Paris Slept is a heart-breaking read that raises the issue of the moral dilemma. What would you do? War is brutal and people’s inner strength is called upon to undertake actions that would normally be beyond our capability. But to survive we fight, we keep going, determined to stay alive and to bear witness to events as they unfold before us.
While Paris Slept is a shocking and very powerful read about human endurance, self-sacrifice, compassion and love. With the two timelines perfectly interwoven, the reader is transported back to Paris in the 1940s and the fear experienced by all its inhabitants. The train station of Drancy was a particularly emotional part of the book. The stillness of the station after the trains had departed leaving behind the detritus of human life, abandoned forever, left for the birds to pick and the wind to own. The horrors of Auschwitz are touched on with certain scenes embedded in the mind of the reader. Ruth Druart brings California and the American Dream very much alive in the descriptions of the smiles of all, the BBQs, the neighbourliness and that overall sense of community. But it also lets us behind closed doors to witness the reality for Jean-Luc and Charlotte trying to move on in this new candy-floss world.
The relationships and the deep deep scars of all the individuals caught up in this tragedy are described with a sensitive and a gentle pen immersing the reader into their lives and dreams.
While Paris Slept is a very remarkable story delving into the psychological impact of those horrendous years on those that lived through it and on the generations to follow. It is a very heartrending and emotive novel that will make every reader stop and think about what you would do given the circumstances. An impressive debut, While Paris Slept is a very thought-provoking and compassionate tale of human survival and endurance, of an undying belief and hope that love will conquer all.
(c) Swirl and Thread
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