The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

‘What kind of reader are you?’ The reply can reveal much of a personality. So maintained Odile, this book’s heroine, whose favourite dead author is Dostoevsky and the living one is the much-loved Zola Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God published in 1937 and still on library shelves.

Those who love books will relish this chronicle that is made unforgettable by its gripping narrative, a string of vividly drawn characters, more than one aspect of love, a romantic setting and the complex drama of World War II.  There is the mystery of how Odile, a Parisian, is now alone in a small Montana town. The overriding theme is the joy of language and books.

Two women play the pivotal roles in this sweeping tale. Odile in wartime Paris and Lily in 1983 Montana. Initially, a love of the French language is the link and of course the importance of writing and literature in their lives.

I mistakenly thought this would be an enjoyable example of ‘chick lit.’, but it is much more.

The author, Janet Skeslien Charles, who has lived for many years in Paris and researched the American Library thoroughly, has created a work that is fresh, detailed and beautifully written. It begins in 1939, just prior to the declaration of War, and sweeps the reader into the lives of the key characters in Paris.

Odile loves her work at the library and is devoted to the quirky people there who strive to keep the books circulating. Amongst them are Boris, Bitzi, the Countess and the indomitable Directress, Dorothy Reeder.

She has a twin, Remy, who is conscripted. The family’s anxiety is close to overwhelming when he is captured, wounded and imprisoned in a Stalag.

The novel had begun with a happy routine of everyday life but that now becomes arduous, when acquiring the simplest of needs, such as food and fuel, becomes a difficult challenge.

The intrepid librarians resolve to comfort soldiers, many in hospitals, by organising small parcels of books. Invariably this provides solace, even joy.

As the German occupation becomes less bearable, Aliens and Jews are arrested and disappear. Odile then has a daring plan. She manages to intercept letters denouncing people at risk and burns them, thus saving some lives.

Mingled with this are chapters relating Lily’s life on the plains of Montana, nearly half a century later.  Odile, now much older, is Lily’s next-door neighbour. A close tie develops and Lily learns French and evolves into a young woman learning about life, under Odile’s guidance.

The sad story of Margaret, Odile’s English friend, who falls in love with a German, shows how a desperate grasp at happiness can be destroyed by War.

Dr Fuchs, a high-ranking German, in better times, a friend of the Directress, Dorothy Reeder, because of his vow to safeguard the librarians and the books, is faced with a dangerous quandary, as war crosses the boundaries of reason.

Lily comes to realise the impact of the horrors of war, as Odile shares her story of those times. She learns of the courage of ordinary souls, the treachery and petty minded of others.

The American Library in Paris was founded in 1917. Today it remains a landmark, the largest English library on the Continent. Famous writers such as Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry Miller were habitues. Its motto is ‘After the Darkness of War, the Light of Books.’

Countless accounts of the World Wars exist but The Paris Library is an exceptional work dedicated to highlighting the courage and often charm of the lives of a handful of ordinary citizens who together value and strive to share the joy of the printed word.

A sage once said, ‘he who does not read lives in a tiny world’.

Walls, even of prisoners and the wounded can vanish, these brave librarians surely believed, with books.

The Paris Library

[2021]

by Janet Skeslien Charles

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 529 33545 3

$32.99; 425pp

 

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