Sarah’s Key is a Holocaust novel with a powerful premise: during a round-up of Jewish families in Paris, a little girl locks her younger brother in a closet in their home to protect him, assuring him she will be back soon to let him out. Of course, she is unable to keep this promise, as her family is taken to a local detention area before parents and children are separated and shipped off to concentration camps. Despite her increasingly terrifying circumstances, Sarah remains determined to get back to Paris and free her brother, though it’s obvious to the reader that her quest can only end tragically.
Interspersed with Sarah’s story is the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. She is assigned to write about the 60th anniversary of the roundup in which Sarah and her family were taken from their home — an anniversary that she finds many of the French people she interviews, including her husband and his family, are reluctant to talk about.
As Sarah’s story unfolds in the past, Julia uncovers more and more of the story, as well as more conflicted feelings about French complicity in the Holocaust. She finds some unsettling links between her husband’s family and the family of the little Jewish girl, Sarah, whom she is researching. When Sarah’s story reaches its climax, the alternating point-of-view chapters end and the rest of the story is told in Julia’s voice.
Up till this point, I found the novel completely compelling. After this, I was less interested, and I thought Julia’s story, which includes not just her research into the war years but her unhappy marriage and unexpected pregnancy, went on longer than it needed to. Though the ending was anticlimactic for me, the book is still an engaging and enlightening read, illuminating a little-talked-about corner of the horrors of World War II and revealing why it’s still a difficult subject for many people in France today.