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Suite Fran̤aise РBook Review

Written by: Irène Némirovsky
Translated by: Sandra Smith
Published by: Vintage Books

The Russian author Némirovsky was forced to flee Paris during the German occupation in 1940. She decided to write a book that would honestly depict the horrific situation that she and thousands of other ordinary people were suffering through. In a setting like occupied France, a semi-autobiographical novel packs a much stronger punch than any celebrity’s fabulous life story. I wrote my French thesis on Phillipe Grimbert’s novel Un Secret, which told the fate of his Jewish family during World War II. After this, I thought I had covered most of the topic but there is still so much to learn.

Némirovsky, despite being of Russian Jewish descent, chose to depict the struggles of non-Jewish Parisians because that is what she experienced. The book introduces five or six main characters and their families and how they face the occupation by the Germans. Many of the characters are cleverly linked together and this continues throughout the book. She artfully portrays a country and its citizens being turned upside down by chaos. True human nature is exposed as people beg, borrow and steal to survive in a war-torn country with decreasing provisions, money and hope.

[ad#longpost]The second half, entitled Dolce, focuses solely on the fate of one small French village and its inhabitants. They have been occupied by German soldiers who are now legally obliged to live in their homes with them while the village’s men are prisoners of war. Different aspects of country life are brought to the fore. Némirovsky examines the farmers, their middle-class landlords and of course the Mayor and his wife. Everyone is connected by this invasion of foreign soldiers yet they still can’t put aside their class differences. To keep the pace of the despairing tale, she adds a forbidden romance to the mix and toys with the idea that the oppressed can somehow bond with their oppressor.

War is always a relevant topic and many aspects of this story can be related to. Especially sixteen-year-old Hubert in part one; he feels an inner obligation to join the war effort and his soul will not rest until he does his bit. Although the story ends reasonably well, you are left somewhat unfulfilled–and this is of course because Némirovsky met her death in Auschwitz before she could finish it. Reading her notes in the appendix makes the tragedy all the more real when you see what she had planned next for her characters. She constantly refers to how she is unsure about the actual ending because in reality she has no idea when or how the war will end.

Appendix II shows the correspondences she had while in Issey-l’Evêque with various editors and contacts. Her husband’s letters are also included and tell of events prior and following Némirovsky’s arrest while their two daughters are cared for by a friend. The inclusion of these appendices are vital to the realism of the novel and serves as the finale that the other story could never have. Despite its harrowing biographical element, Suite Française is a wonderful piece of storytelling while at the same time demonstrating the powerful impact of history and its all too real consequences.

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