A melancholy and mournful tale of the past's inextricable relationship to the present.
Faulks (Pistache Returns, 2017, etc.) gives us a novel that uses World War II as a way to think about the contemporary refugee crisis and nationalist politics in Europe. He brings us the story of Tariq, a lovelorn, disaffected, and perpetually aroused Algerian teenager whose unfulfilling studies and infatuation with his virginal classmate Laila fill him with romantic dreams of fleeing his home for the streets of Europe. The son of a half-French, half-Arab woman whose father was a French settler, Tariq eventually abandons Algeria for Paris. Meanwhile, an American academic named Hannah arrives in Paris in order to do research on a historical project about the lives of Parisian women under the Vichy government during the war. Hannah is more concerned with the past than the present, but she feels increasingly empty in her history-obsessed life. As Tariq floats through the streets of Paris, looking for shelter and work, his and Hannah's paths eventually cross; soon, Tariq is a lodger in Hannah's apartment. Eventually, however, Hannah's obsession with the past collides with Tariq's complicated family history. Tariq soon finds that the hatred and xenophobia that drove French complicity with Nazi Germany and the settling of Algeria have not evaporated but taken on more subtle manifestations. Narrated in the first person from both Hannah's and Tariq's perspectives, this is a briskly told and engaging novel that sets us in the bustling streets of mid-2000s Paris. However, the prose is workmanlike, even dull at times, never rising to the lyrical heights of books whose subject matter this shares. The comparison might be unfair, but it's hard not to recall novels like Sebald's gorgeous Austerlitz when reading this novel, which suffers for the comparison. Tariq's and Hannah's voices are occasionally unconvincing. Taking Tariq as a hard-up teenage Algerian runaway is difficult when, after running into a mysteriously familiar woman on the Paris Metro, he utters, "I felt she was meant for me as the man I could become, as the man I deep down already am—an older, better man beneath all the clumsy, unimportant stuff of being young and useless and being me." Most unfortunately, the novel's twists are easy to see coming. Still, this is an entertaining novel with memorable characters.
A fun romp through Paris and history, one that nevertheless makes us understand that the sins of the past are not truly past.