Welcome to another week of lockdown. I hope you’re doing well, that you’re fit and you’re healthy and that you’re and finding a degree of peace amongst the chaos.
Personally I’ve been attending my usual yin yoga class via ZOOM (although missing the heat of the hot room), I’m watching lots of Netflix, playing on my Gameboy, working out, reading and trying not to miss coffee shop Americanos too much!
I’ve got through quite a lot of books recently but one I definitely need to share my thoughts on is one that was kindly lent to me by my colleague Nick (before the lockdown of course!).
It’s quite nice in our office, as there’s quite a few readers amongst us so you can often find a donated book or 5 kicking around ready to be picked up by whoever wants to read it, and there’s often a fair bit of book chat amongst us. Its a great way of reading things you may not have picked up usually!
THE PARIS ARCHITECT, BY CHARLES BELFOURE
The book is set in Paris (as you may have guessed by the title) and follows the life of French architect Lucian Bernard during the Second World War. Paris has been occupied by the Germans and no Jew is safe.
In the first chapter, a Jew is shot dead right in front of Lucian in the middle of the street by a Waffen-SS Officer. Although shocked and appalled, in order not to follow the same fate (although not a Jew himself), Lucian compliments the officer on his skill with a weapon to be allowed to go on his way.
This opening scene set the theme of the book very well; it showed how easily people accepted that they could not do anything to save the Jews they knew or grew up amongst, for fear of being killed themselves. Doing things (like complimenting the enemy) just to survive.
It’s something many of us have questioned about the murder of millions of Jews many times – ‘But how did this happen?!?!‘, and I think this opening chapter explains the mindset of those who stood by and did nothing fairly well.
However, throughout the course of the book, Lucian’s approach to Jews and the Nazi’s change and in no time he finds himself trading architectual commission wins for building perfect hiding places for Jews within houses and apartments; which such a level of skill and intellect that it outwits even the best of the predatory Germans. It’s both thrilling and terrifying.
To begin with, Lucian is entirely focused on just the monetary gain, he is not building Jewish hiding places out of the goodness of his heart; for of course, if he is found out, he shall surely be killed. At the beginning of the novel, Lucian is greedy, sneaky, an adulterer. He is married to Celeste who’s character is written very well. We see her through the eyes of Lucian to begin with; in that she is a typical domesticated wife without much about her, however later she proves in some fairly short paragraphs that she is far more intellectual than he has ever understood her to be, scoffs at his idiocy and leaves him. I have to say from a female perspective due to other things that Lucian had done in the story up to this point that betrayed her that I let out a loud ‘HA!’ and cheered her on.
There is however a horrific scene in the book that is harrowing and that really shifts Lucian’s emotions in the book and that is the catalyst to change him morally, for the better. One of Lucian’s hiding spots fails, right in front of his eyes. It changes Lucian’s emotional connection to what he is doing and it no longer becomes about financial or reputation, but about saving Jews.
However – Lucian is also working on architectural designs for a factory that will build weapons for the Germans. He is in some ways, a double agent. His workload becomes so vast that he requires an assistant, Alain, who in a way becomes one of the most dangerous characters to Lucian in the story and that really upgrades the level of tension and suspense in the tale.
Alain is intelligent yet arrogant, despises Lucian and his uncle is in the Gestapo. He is a loose cannon, suspicious of Lucian. He begins rifling through his paperwork, following him to work out exactly what he is doing.. ready and willing to coldly turn Lucian over to his Uncle at any point for brownie points, no matter what the end for Lucian.
What is most interesting is Lucian’s relationship with a German Wehrmacht officer, Herzog. They meet initially via discussions about the factory, however this quickly becomes a friendship, despite Lucian trying desperately hard not to like him. They have too much in common not to, a love of art, architecture and a shared sense of hatred for the SS; Herzog is there to win a war against communists and allies, not Jews. Herzog (much to our humour as readers) makes his feelings well known to the SS at any point he gets.
This book surprised me in so many ways. Firstly, I think we’re all guilty of judging a book by its cover; I honestly think if the cover had been more modern, that it would have been all over our Instagram feeds.
Secondly, the attention to detail in the book is absolutely fascinating. The author is in fact an architect itself and you feel it from the descriptions. Each hiding place is described perfectly, but in a way that any reader can understand it- we don’t need a degree in architecture to be able to picture the hiding place or how it works in our heads. I could feel 1940s Paris through the pages, I could see the uniforms of the different officers, smell the smoke in the offices and sadly, I could visualise the torture taking place to persons of Nazi interest.
Thirdly, the characters in this book are incredible. Each one is perfectly padded out, different, I could visualise each character. I often find that when we are reading about people in an Army or Political campaign that the Characters aren’t too different and begin to merge into one another however with Belfoure’s writing I could visualise each one differently. There were also such a plethora of characters with such different personalities.
My favourite characters were Manet, the rich industrialist who is paying Lucian to protect the Jewish community, because despite the risk on his life he is willing to sacrifice himself and his fortune for his friends, that is real human love.
Bette, the smart mouthed sassy fashion assistant to Lucian’s Designer/Model mistress with a really wicked sense of humour (I felt we could have been friends!) who secretly harbours a heart of gold.
And I hate to say it – but in the end I too liked Herzog. I won’t say why here but all becomes clear in the last few pages, and his character is actually written with some warmth (plus it helps that he is fighting for a different cause and doesn’t agree with the killing of Jews).
CAN’T PUT IT DOWN RATING: 5/5
Honestly there was pretty much nothing I could find fault with in this book, which is very rare. I found it quite similar in tone to All the Light We cannot See by Anthony Doerr, but I found this book much easier to read.
The only thing I would pick up on as a ‘fault’ is that there is a moment where Lucian refers to an angel and devil on his shoulder :
“He felt as if he was in one of those dumb-ass American movies he’d seen. A character would be in a quandary over what to do. A miniature angel wearing wings and halo appeared on one shoulder telling him to do what’s right, and a devil with a pitchfork was on the other shoulder advising him not to.”
From my own research, it would appear that Disney’s ‘Lend a paw’ first use this concept in a film with Pluto in 1941, but they weren’t on his shoulder. This is a common criticism of this book, but I don’t feel that it really pulls away from the beauty of the narrative.
It’s a historical thriller, with complex themes of hope, friendship, love, fear, forgiveness and a very genuine demonstration of the human mind when faced with starkly contrasting choices.
The story has some great heroes, some which will genuinely surprise you. Lucian’s transition from greedy and self-centred to reluctant hero is fascinating to watch. It has harrowing scenes that have remained in my mind – the things that people went through, the torture, the suffering – intricately described by the author.
It’s a very emotional story and will make you think for sometime afterwards. Personally I have visited Auschwitz amongst other German prisoner of war camps; I have seen the rail way tracks, I’ve been inside the bunkers and the crematoriums and have seen the mounds of the mass burial sites. I therefore feel a very strong connection to this book after what I witnessed myself, and I think the tone of the book would have been very honest of the tone of people and cities under occupation at the time.
There are some incredible scenes; those that will horrify you and those that will make you feel the joy that the characters on the pages must have felt. It’s an emotional rollercoaster; one that you could definitely imagine being the experience for many at that time.
One thing I really took away from this book is that the enemy doesn’t have to be inhumane. They may not all be as evil as they look.
I Highly recommended to readers looking for a well rounded book with an interest in World War 2 or just in humankind.
- Beware that whilst the story is just a narrative and not based upon fact, the torture scenes are very realistic which may not suit all readers; but they’re unfortunately more likely to be factual.
Where to Buy:
WASHED DOWN WITH:
I’ve actually been drinking this one with papaya and passionfruit green tea my friend brought me back from from Disney, but I’m afraid as its from the park unless you’re there yourself any time soon then I’m not sure you can grab any – but it’s lovely!
A question for You: What are your favourite novels set during the War?