First published in July 2012.
Tatiana de Rosnay is best known for her novel Sarah’s Key, which was first published in 2006. The author was named one of the top 10 fiction writers in Europe in 2010, data based upon the analysis of bestseller charts across several European countries.
Her newest novel, The House I Loved, opens in Paris in 1869, a turbulent time in which the city is ravaged with change. This follows an order from Emperor Napoleon III, who aims to ‘permanently transform Paris into a modern city’. The novel is based upon real events but is peopled with almost an entire cast of fictitious characters.
Caught amid the terrifying thick of this period is the novel’s main protagonist, Rose Bazelet, ‘an old woman of nearly sixty’. Rose is a strong, determined woman, who flatly refuses to give up her house on the rue Childebert so that it can be torn down by an uncaring government intent upon change. The house in which she and her husband lived – which was ‘nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and had seen several generations of Bazelets’ – was ‘to be utterly demolished in order to build the continuation of rue de Rennes and the boulevard Saint-Germain’. Rose believes that she is ‘not too old to fight back’ and consequently installs herself in her house’s cellar once it is believed that every resident has left their premises for demolition to begin. She stubbornly stays in the city as more and more of her neighbours leave, until the landscape she has grown up with begins to crumble around her.
Rose is alone in Paris. Her daughter Violette, with whom she has a fractured relationship, has moved to Tours with her young family, and her husband Armand passed away ten years before the narrative begins. It is clear from the start that despite his death, Armand is still the focus of Rose’s life. Each action she undertakes, particularly with regard to the house in which he grew up, is done to protect him, and the time she has spent without him has been incredibly hard for her to get through: ‘You have been gone for ten years now. A century to me.’ The couple’s history is gradually revealed, intertwined as it is with the specific social history which had an impact upon the city at the time. The cast of characters in their entirety are set against an almost consistently turbulent backdrop of total change.
The House I Loved is quite historically rich. Amongst other elements rife in Paris at the time, de Rosnay details the uniform of French postmen, the wonder of the ‘Exposition Universelle’, the intricacies of Paris streets which are geographically precise throughout, and the troops of ragpickers who swarm across the city.
The character descriptions throughout the novel work well, but some are certainly more inventive than others. The flower seller on the rue Childebert named Alexandrine Walcker is described as a ‘whirlwind of curls’ with ‘toffee-coloured eyes’ and another character, Gilbert, has a face which is ‘a flurry of gnarled lines like the bark of a withered tree’. Other depictions fall flat, however, and this is particularly true with regard to Violette, who is a lifeless character throughout.
The majority of the novel is told from the first person perspective of Rose. This allows the novel to be evocative from the outset. The opening line sets the scene and the tone for the rest of the story: ‘My beloved, I can hear them coming up our street. It is a strange, ominous rumble… It sounds like a battle… It smells like a battle.’ The narrative is addressed to her late husband throughout, and the voice of her character is rather strong. This directness of style works incredibly effectively and makes the novel seem far more personal than a third person detached perspective would allow. Despite this, however, Rose mentions many details which would be obvious to her late husband – what his own father was like, for example – which do not really work in the grander scheme of the novel.
Letters from Armand and also from other characters who are important to Rose are also woven throughout The House I Loved. Whilst this technique in itself would ordinarily work well with a first person narrative perspective, the letters themselves are so similar in style and content that they could have easily been written by the same character. There is nothing to set the letters apart from one another and their only distinguishable differences are the names which are signed at the end of each. Several of the dialogue exchanges feel a little lifeless and unrealistic at times and some of the language is perhaps a little too modern and colloquial to work effectively within the specific period.
The House I Loved does not merely present the history of a city besieged by her own people, but of one of its inhabitants and the life she has built for herself there, a life which she is more than reluctant to part with. Whilst the scope of the novel is an interesting one, particularly with regard to the social history of Paris, it is more ambitious than the author seems to have realised. The idea of the novel is an interesting and incredibly promising one, but sadly some elements of The House I Loved – the similarity of different narrators and the relationship between Rose and her daughter Violette which is not portrayed in enough depth, for instance – fall short of what could be a wonderful story.
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