Book Review: Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Paris EchoAbout the Book

Here is Paris as you have never seen it before – a city in which every building seems to hold the echo of an unacknowledged past, the shadows of Vichy and Algeria.

American postdoctoral researcher Hannah and runaway Moroccan teenager Tariq have little in common, yet both are susceptible to the daylight ghosts of Paris. Hannah listens to the extraordinary witness of women who were present under the German Occupation; in her desire to understand their lives and through them her own, she finds a city bursting with clues and connections. Out in the migrant suburbs, Tariq is searching for a mother he barely knew. For him, in his innocence, each boulevard, Métro station and street corner is a source of surprise.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (320 pp.)    Publisher: Hutchinson
Published: 6th September 2018     Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

Paris Echo is one of those books where, whilst recognising the skill of the author and the quality of the writing, I found myself wondering if I was quite clever enough to understand everything the author was trying to communicate. It’s partly for that reason that I’m only now writing this review although I read the book some weeks ago…

The book explores a number of themes including abstruse (to me, at least) concepts such as ‘autoscopy’, the sense of being outside yourself and seeing yourself as if another person.  Tariq, one of the characters in the book, experiences this sensation on a couple of occasions.

The key theme, as suggested by the title, is how echoes of the past reverberate in the present.  For example, Hannah is returning to Paris where she studied previously to research the lives of women in Paris during the German occupation.  But she is also facing up to traumatic memories.  ‘Coming to the American Library when my real material lay elsewhere had been a frivolous thing to do; but I’d wanted to reconnect with my past before I pushed out into the unknown.’  The story told from Hannah’s point of view is interspersed with transcripts of recordings (fictionalised) that she listens to as part of her research.  I confess I did at times think this was merely a way for the author to insert chunks of historical detail into the book.

Tariq, on the other hand, is travelling to the place of his mother’s birth.  Hannah believes Tariq views Paris as ‘some sort of lost motherland’.  However, he never gets anywhere in finding out anything about his mother as far as I could see.

There were clever little touches that I liked such as the chapter headings being stations on the Paris Metro.  I also liked the sense of France’s past history being so present in a physical sense, with buildings, streets and stations named after historical, military and political figures.  ‘In Paris, where almost every street name was a nod to history…’  And the author doesn’t shy away from reminding the reader that France’s role in World War 2 encompassed collaboration as well as resistance.

However, there were many elements I struggled with.  For instance, Tariq encounters a girl named Sandrine on his journey to France.  Later, Hannah encounters Sandrine outside her building and Sandrine introduces Tariq to Hannah.  A nice neat circle, one thinks.  However, Sandrine then disappears completely from the story.

Tariq’s encounters with a woman he catches sight of one day and Hannah’s strange experience when visiting the site of a former concentration camp, left me frankly puzzled.  Were these experiences some sort of hallucination (drug-fuelled or otherwise) or intended to be manifestation of Hannah’s belief in ‘the impact of previous existences on every day I was alive…’?  I really don’t know but I’d love someone who’s read the book and thinks they know the answer to enlighten me!

I thought I would love Paris Echo but, sadly, I ended up merely confused.

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In three words: Complex, thought-provoking, atmospheric

Try something similar…for a fictional treatment of SOE operations in World War 2, Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman or for firsthand testimony of life under German occupation,  A Countess in Limbo by Olga Hendrikoff and Sue Carscallen (click on titles to read my reviews)

MV 001About the Author

Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953, and grew up in Newbury, the son of a judge and a repertory actress. He attended Wellington College and studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, although he didn’t enjoy attending either institution. Cambridge in the 70s was still quite male-dominated, and he says that you had to cycle about 5 miles to meet a girl.

He was the first literary editor of The Independent, and then went on to become deputy editor of The Sunday Independent. Sebastian Faulks was awarded the CBE in 2002. He and his family live in London.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

  1. I felt he tried to do too much and as a result the book didn’t quite reach “great” for me. However I did enjoy the transcripts from the women during the war and came out of it wishing he’d written a straight novel about them, without all the present day stuff. Agree totally about the hallucinations – one person seeing visions from the past can work, but two of them doing it felt unbelievable and contrived.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My husband love Faulks, and I’ve enjoyed one or two of his books too, but I didn’t know about this one. I’ll have to put it on my wish list. Thanks!


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