Sebastian Faulks “Paris Echo”- book review

I read Faulks’s new novel, as I think it was meant to be read: on a trip to Paris. In his author meeting in Ely, Faulks said that the book focuses on the aspects of the city that are not known to tourists: the dirty, squalid areas, far away from the guided tours.
Yet Faulks’s Paris is still a Paris seen through the eyes of a foreigner: or two foreigners, to be exact. Hannah is an American student who is researching the life of French women during the German occupation and Tariq is a young Moroccan who has come to Paris to find traces of his lost mother (or to lose his virginity to a white girl- whichever version one prefers). Hannah needs to learn to move on from her obsession with the past, both historical and personal. Tariq needs to anchor his hopes for the future with some historical knowledge.
The novel deals with the importance of memory- ghosts of the occupation still haunt the streets of Paris, and a man calling himself Victor Hugo hosts a puppet theatre featuring Marius and Cosette (he starts with The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the puppet version, just as the Disney film does).
Don’t get me wrong – this novel was absolutely fine. It read well, it worked well with travelling in Paris (I even found myself folding my metro tickets into little “Vs for Victory” as the Resistance does in Hannah’s history books). It has good bits. But it didn’t feel quite finished.

First, although I originally liked Tariq as a character, I really struggled with him in the second half of the book, where he was supposed to gain some historical knowledge. I felt his motivations were unclear or worse still, implausible. Second, there were moments when I found the magical realism a bit much. Why would only victims of 1940-1945 haunt the streets? Surely, in a city with as much history as Paris, there was violence enough for ghosts? Even those from 1961, whom Tariq reads about, but never sees (at the very least 40 Algerian pro-independence demonstrators were killed by the Parisian police)?

SPOILER ALERT – stop reading now, if spoilers bother you

At one point, Tariq even has sexual intercourse with a ghost. The ghost is in her twenties but has vivid memories of the 1940s. And that’s just – a bit too much for me. Especially as, well, this encounter doesn’t really add much to the narrative. If it was a pivotal point, then maybe it would work: as a throwaway, it’s just plain weird and unnecessary.

There are many unresolved mysteries in Paris Echo: Tariq’s mother,  the physical nature of ghosts, poor Moroccan boys who somehow have enough money to have sat nav on their mobile phone in 2005… though I know Faulks probably leaves at least the first two there to prove this is a literary novel, which doesn’t need straightforward resolutions, it just feels somewhat untidy.

I realise this is a somewhat biased review, as if this were a novelist I hadn’t read before, I would be much more enthusiastic. But, unfortunately, for Faulks, I’ve read Human Traces and I know he is capable of so much better than this.

In short, it is an atmospheric book to read in Paris, but I probably wouldn’t reach for it without that context. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that there are lots of French books (Dumas, Hugo, the list goes on…), not to mention English books (Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast) you might want to read in Paris instead.

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