A Jewish refugee family arrives in 1939 Paris after a series of hairbreadth escapes in this sequel historical novel.
On the run from Nazis in Prague, the physically and psychologically traumatized Kohut family has arrived safely in the City of Light, just in time for France’s entry into World War II. In this follow-up to his semiautobiographical debut novel, The Dragontail Buttonhole (2016), Curtis picks up the story of Sophie and her husband, Willie, a displaced clothier, and their infant son, Pavel, exactly where the last installment left them. Sophie is traumatized but unbroken, young Pavel is hungry, and Willie faces the challenge of reuniting with his mother and father in England while dealing with “a crushed finger, a slashed chest and empty pockets.” Booted from their fleabag hotel by its Nazi-sympathizer owner, the Kohuts soon find that their mere presence in France is illegal: if they’re discovered, Sophie and Pavel will be sent to a refugee camp and Willie to prison. While in Paris, they survive on a couple of pawned gold coins and the occasional half-truth; in Germany, Willie had learned that “deception was an essential skill for refugees on the run.” As Sophie finds a surrogate family at the Café Budapest, Willy volunteers for France’s army of Czech exiles and does his best to contend with the “rough, vulgar camaraderie” of the ragtag recruits. Both main characters suffer unexpected joys and real dangers in their travails—including an especially sticky moment involving Pablo Picasso. The story becomes even more emotionally heightened and complex when Willy and Sophie learn of a particular man from their past in their midst. As in Curtis’ last novel, there’s a poignant and arresting precision in the descriptions that make events from 80 years in the past feel immediate: “Even the taxis-bicyclettes that carried two passengers with a child on their lap charged the equivalent of ten fresh eggs.” Indeed, there’s not a wasted word to be found in the smoothly paced text. Readers will also find themselves absorbed by the book’s gradually building suspense as the characters experience both good fortune and jeopardy.
A heart-rending, pellucid story of wartime survival.