As a longstanding admirer of Sebastian Faulks’ work, simply the title of this latest novel (2018) stirred the reader’s imagination and the prospect of a return to the original site of the author’s reputation. The ‘French trilogy’, published between 1989-98 (‘The Girl at the Lion d’Or’; ‘Birdsong’; and ‘Charlotte Gray’) established Faulks as a major British writer, wherein he used the common backdrop of war and explored the immediate impact and legacy of conflict for the characters involved. This has proven fertile territory, partly perhaps due to the historical gravity of such events, which continue to weigh heavily on the scarred psyche of our continent, but partly also to Faulks’ unerring capacity to evoke a gallic essence in his novels, which transports the reader with such panache.
This latest novel is set in contemporary Paris, but through the contrasting encounters of an American researcher (Hannah) and Moroccan immigrant (Tariq), the author develops a vehicle to observe the modern cosmopolitan metropolis, as well as allude to difficult, past wartime and colonial memories that have yet to be fully expunged from the national consciousness.
Tariq is nineteen and though able to speak french (a legacy of his late, Algerian mother who was raised in Paris), he abandons his education in Tangier, to follow tentatively in her footsteps, arriving homeless and penniless, his first venture abroad. By contrast,Hannah has been dispatched by her US university to research a book and is returning to Paris, to the scene of her ill-fated and only love affair, ten years earlier. And with both main characters thus deposited, the stage is set.
The disparate experiences of Hannah and Tariq are driven largely by the stratified socio-economic groupings of the Fifth Republic, and that they apparently have little in common. Still, what limited overlap exists offers each insight into the other’s world and over time their respective curiosities satisfied, lessons learnt, fragile hearts restored, they can move on. However, what the main characters do have in common is their status as ‘outsiders’. Notwithstanding the undoubted magnetism of Paris, the ‘echoes’ emitted by the city resonate differently, even between native generations and the absence of that shared history suggests that visitors may be untainted, but surprised, by a sometimes troubled past.
Intertwining such complex themes, on the back of a fairly weak plot left me with the sense of a book that didn’t quite deliver on its potential. Faulks writes beautifully and with his customary affinity for all things French, but this book has a nebulous quality, which I found hard to fathom. Perhaps it is an inevitable bugbear that having produced a universally lauded ‘modern classic’ in ‘Birdsong’, readers wait impatiently for those heights to be repeated (incidentally I am a great fan of Faulks' novel ‘Engleby’). In the meantime though, I am curious to read some alternative reviews of this novel, to see if I have missed the key that unlocks some hitherto hidden depth.