Title: The Paris Library
Author: Janet Skeslien Charles
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 9th February 2021
Synopsis: Inspired by the true story of the librarians at the American Library in Paris who risked their lives during the Nazis’ war on words: a story of courage, defiance and betrayal in Occupied Paris, perfect for fans of All the Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.
IN THE DARKNESS OF WAR, THE LIGHT OF BOOKS – HOW LIBRARIANS DEFIED THE NAZIS
Odile Souchet is obsessed with books, and her new job at the American Library in Paris – with its thriving community of students, writers and book lovers – is a dream come true. When war is declared, the Library is determined to remain open. But then the Nazis invade Paris, and everything changes.
In Occupied Paris, choices as black and white as the words on a page become a murky shade of grey – choices that will put many on the wrong side of history, and the consequences of which will echo for decades to come.
Lily is a lonely teenage desperate to escape small-town Montana. She grows close to her neighbour Odile, discovering they share the same love of language, the same longings. But as Lily uncovers more about Odile’s mysterious past, she discovers a dark secret, closely guarded and long hidden.
Based on the true Second World War story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable novel of romance, friendship, family, and of heroism found in the quietest of places.
The Paris Library begins in the days before war breaks out in Europe, leading. Odile longs to lead her own life, as does her twin brother, Rémy. Yet their protective parents who lived through The Great War are determined to keep their children safe. Odile soon takes a job at the American Library in Paris, where she makes friends. She loves books, and has memorised the Dewey Decimal system. When her brother heads off to war, and the Nazis invade France, everything changes for Odile, and she must do what she can to protect the words she loves so much – but at what cost? And what secrets do those around her hide?
In 1983, in Montana, Lily is a young teen whose mother is ill, and whose father is often at work. She finds comfort in their elderly neighbour Odile, who begins to teach her French and spend time with her as she grows. As her father remarries and has more children with his new wife, Lily seeks Odile’s company more. She feels adrift from her friends, and Odile is the only one she can truly be open with. Yet Odile hides a secret and mysterious past that Lily longs to find out.
Told using Lily and Odile’s perspectives, the story moves between the 1940s and the 1980s, with Lily and Odile’s lives mirroring each other in some ways. They are both lonely, and they both need each other. Lily feels lost in her own family, as though she’s only around to make life easier for her stepmother, and make sure her brothers are taken care of. Odile has nobody left. They become friends, and show that a cross-generational friendship is just as powerful and loving as one from the same generation. The two give each other comfort in a world where it seems they are alone, and at the same time, Odile begins to help Lily find her way through the turbulent teenage years.
An ode the books and libraries, The Paris Library uses books as a way to show how people coped with war. It doesn’t shy away from the difficult decisions that some people had to make, in almost impossible circumstances, yet it doesn’t absolve people of these decisions. They face consequences for their actions, even if these are implicit and understood through the actions of the rest of the novel and the other characters. Odile and Lily were perfectly centred as the main characters, and throughout their lives and perspectives, captured the challenges of family, war, love and friendship at all stages of life.
Secrets abound and drive the novel and the characters, and their lives evolve over the book, growing and developing, as what they really want is slowly revealed. The book also tackles issues of mental health and feelings of inadequacy, the power of friendship and the changes that come with being a teenager, going through war, or starting a new family. It tackles so many emotions, so much tension coupled with a love and reverence of books and reading that lives through the pages and characters. Based on real events and real people, this aspect really brought the history and story to life, and gave it new depths that invigorates the story in a unique way.
There is so much more to this book, but I feel like I can’t say more without giving too much away. At its core, this is a book about friendship, and the places we find friendship. It reassures us that even when things feel hopeless and dark, the bad things won’t end forever, and sometimes, even when things seem absolutely hopeless, we can find allies in the least likely of places. It is a great addition to historical fiction, and our understanding of what happened during the war to all kinds of people and how people reacted to what was happening around them. At its heart, The Paris Library is about humanity and our capacity to love and hate, and our capacity to understand each other. A great book for lovers of history and books.