James Gault reviews Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks
This is a difficult book to review. Some aspects of it are brilliant, but others fall far short of what you would expect from such a renowned novelist. Let’s start with the good things
Those of you who follow Mr Faulks work will find the meticulous and detailed research into period and place that you have come to expect. The author’s credentials as a populist historian are impeccable. In this novel he also tackles psychological themes: the effects of losing a loved one, the pains of adolescence, the battle against loneliness. These are explored with insight and empathy and we are left with the impression that he has helped us to understand them better. Mr Faulks also explores here the interaction of history with the present; historical and present-day the characters intermingle. Is this a suggestion of fantasy, or hallucinations induced by the emotional connections of the researchers to their subjects? The author leaves this for the reader to decide. Overall, I find no fault with the content of his novel; it is engrossing and challenging.
On the other hand, I found the style of the writing disconcerting. The story is told through narration: those of two present-day characters as well as the historical recordings made by those living in Paris during WW II, the period one of the main characters is researching. The problem is that all these narratives are presented in the same authorial voice. No attempt is made to differentiate the discourse of the two main characters, although one is a Moroccan teenager and the other a mature American lady. Each chapter is narrated by one of them, but readers are confused, finding difficulty in deciding who is speaking at any time. And although the historical recordings are well identified in the text, the people all sound the same as each other and no different from the two modern day main characters. So for me all the characters lacked authenticity; I couldn’t believe in them and always felt it was the author who was speaking to me. It seemed that he couldn’t be bothered to find a unique voice for each character.
A further annoying feature of the writing style was the pedantic nature of the writing. Mr Faulks is an expert in many topics; but he wants us to know it and he doesn’t let the need to progress the story get in the way of this. Among other things, I learned a lot about the twentieth century France, the origins of Parisian metro station names, the difficulties of French homonyms, exacerbated by the lazy habit of ignoring consonant endings in Parisian pronunciation, and much more besides. At times, I found myself wondering if maybe he should have just produced a textbook and abandoned the idea of a novel.
Of course, this is a good and interesting book, if you can overcome the distractions of the writing style. Sebastian Faulks has written many good books, but for me this isn’t one of his best.