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Historic ghosts haunt the fabled city of light in Faulks' novel

Fiction Paris Echo Sebastian Faulks Hutchinson, hardback, 320 pages, €24


Hope and history: Faulks vividly evokes Paris. Photo: Tony Gavin

Hope and history: Faulks vividly evokes Paris. Photo: Tony Gavin

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hope and history: Faulks vividly evokes Paris. Photo: Tony Gavin

In this age of stern political correctness, those who police matters of cultural appropriation might have a thing or two to say about Sebastian Faulks' latest novel.

Here, after all, is a 65-year-old white English writer who has chosen not only to take on the voice of a 19-year-old Moroccan man but also that of a 30-something American woman, each of their first-person accounts relating the book in alternate chapters. How dare he.

Those of us less concerned about such things will grant him the right to do so, while remaining not entirely persuaded that his novelistic skills have been up to this delicate task.

Tariq is a young Moroccan who gets bored with his comfortable home life and abruptly departs for Paris, where he has a chance meeting with American academic Hannah, who allows him to take a room in the apartment she's renting while researching material about the experiences of French women during the city's Nazi occupation.

Hannah, who had a traumatic love affair in Paris a decade earlier, is wary of intimacy but has a good friend in fellow academic Julian, who clearly loves her, though his love remains unspoken, and indeed unrecognised by Hannah.

Tariq, however, is entirely open to life. An innocent abroad, he savours every aspect of this excitingly unfamiliar metropolis and happily takes a menial job in a fast-food joint run by two older Arabs of French birth.

Gradually, larger themes emerge, as one would expect from Faulks, who has previously written of France in a historical context, notably in his bestselling novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. And here he muses on history, too - not just on the women who resisted or collaborated with their Nazi occupiers, but also on state-sanctioned French atrocities against Arabs during the Algerian war, notably the Paris massacre of protesters in the autumn of 1961.

Is it wiser to remember or forget? That's one of the question raised by Faulks, as it was by Kazuo Ishiguro in his epic 2015 fable The Buried Giant. Towards the end of Paris Echo, Tariq reflects that most of humanity "only know about the bad things that have happened to your own people" - a suggestion there that we should all strive for a world where, in the words of Seamus Heaney, hope and history rhyme, and where we all come to love, to at least empathise with, each other.

But Tariq is a curious choice of character to mull over such things because elsewhere in the novel he shows no such inclinations - with no political or social baggage, he's entirely happy to go with the flow and is mainly intent on having sex with his virginal girlfriend when he returns home.

In fact, he's so guileless - and so unreflective of his own Arab identity - that he doesn't really convince, and nor was I persuaded by the supernatural elements that Faulks introduces, including a reincarnated seamstress from Nazi-occupied Paris and an old man who calls himself Victor Hugo and who speechifies in the manner of that 19th-century writer.

Faulks, indeed, quotes Hugo in one of the book's introductory epigraphs, which also feature two lines from Charles Baudelaire: "Teeming city, your streets filled with dreams,/Where daylight ghosts confront the passer-by".

The teeming city is vividly evoked in this bookishly readable novel and so, too, are the ghosts that haunt Hannah's researches into its history.

And if at the end everything concludes too cosily to be quite credible - that can be put down to Faulks' belief in the capacity of love to redeem us all.

Indo Review