Though it recounts some of the chief events in which Notre-Dame played a role — the coronation of Napoleon, the decluttering demolitions of Baron Haussmann, the liberation of Paris — this is not so much a history of the 850-year-old cathedral as an act of thanksgiving for its unknown medieval builders and its modern restorers. Poirier has interviewed several of those involved in the salvage operations. Their emotional involvement with the cathedral and its relics is at the heart of this engaging book. There are many hints of minor miracles — the gold cross gleaming in the charred and sodden debris of the nave, the word espérance (hope) cinematically visible through the dust on a leather-bound book lying open on the remnants of the altar.
Who cares about a pile of old stones when humanity is dealing with a far graver crisis?
Well, Agnès Poirier cares, and it’s a tribute to the power of her writing that I finished this short book also caring a great deal about Paris’s cathedral. I would go further. I doubt that any book published this year will start with a more gripping opening chapter than hers. Titled The Night of the Fire, it’s a brilliantly sustained journalistic “write-through” chronicling what happened in the terrible eight hours after 6.18pm on April 15 last year — when a security guard (new to the job, it transpired) struggled to understand exactly what sort of impending disaster a flashing light on the fire alarm system was signalling.