Faulks is doing what he does best, marrying careful historical research with a good ear for dialogue. It’s not easy to write in the voice of a sexed-up 19-year-old Arab boy, always going on about his zib, without sounding like a dodgy old orientalist. It would be overegging the clafoutis to call him “a writer at the height of his powers”, but Faulks knows better than to mess with a classic recipe.
SEBASTIAN FAULKS has settled into the comfortable autumnal groove of his literary career: no hallucinogenic forays into experimentalism, just a run of solid, absorbing novels... Paris Echo continues this trend and carries its own echoes of previous Faulks novels set in France... If Hannah and Tariq never quite thicken into fully rounded characters, the third, main focus of this novel, Paris itself, is always dizzyingly vibrant and alluring.
Faulks is a fine descriptive writer and evokes Paris splendidly, but too often it feels as if he has shoved his two narrators aside in order to favour the reader with his elegant observations direct. There is a moving moment when Tariq goes to the Shoah Memorial in Drancy and finds that he can’t “get any sense of ‘history’ at all”, but decides he must try to dwell on the suffering of the French Jews while he is there: “Not to make an effort would be like making these people die twice over.” That’s beautifully expressed, but so obviously an articulation of the novel’s major theme as to make one hear it in Faulks’ voice rather than Tariq’s.
Not quite magic realism, the novel veers close here to the mawkish time-travel territory of the 1990s TV series Goodnight Sweetheart. A finer analogy, though, might be Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater – another story about a teenage tearaway who explores the underbelly of a sprawling city and is prone to hallucinations. Tariq’s keen ingestion of kief – a form of cannabis – feels like a mischievous clue.
This is a puzzling novel, not entirely successful in its voices and devices, but brimming with Faulks’s deep affection for Paris. His outsider’s interest in quirky street names and quaint corners transports his readers there too. And in the end, the book is powered by his ambition to evoke that place, its ghostliness, those spectres of history, lurking around every beautiful avenue.
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.
Sebastian Faulks is the author of the bestselling Birdsong and war once again throws its long shadow over one of his novels. Paris Echo is another impressive achievement, with Tariq a well- fleshed-out character whose ignorance is beguiling. There is humour and humanity in this bold, perceptive novel.
No one could accuse Faulks of not researching his history thoroughly, and Paris Echo is brimming with facts and hard truths about how people act during war that we could all benefit from knowing. But his attempt to knit Paris’s past and present in a literary fashion gets tangled, with threads left dangling, and ultimately unravels.
Cunningly crafted, Faulks’s fictional bridge between the French past and present — and, discreetly, between Jewish and Arab legacies — has its sentimental side. In our own age of renewed sectarian spite and rage, most readers will forgive him the novelistic sleight-of-hand that brings his people, and his histories, together. And the mysterious “Victor Hugo” — whether he’s an actor or a spectre — would thoroughly approve.
Faulks is himself a true lover: a Francophile who can look the worst of France and French history in the face, and still say “nevertheless”. Here is Paris in all its beauty and squalor, its blood-stained history and its ability to instil in its lover a sense of the true sweetness of life. So this intelligent, moving, often disturbing novel is also really a love letter to Paris and indeed to France.
Sadly, much of the book’s historical material... is dealt out in great chunks of dialogue as the characters seek to educate one another. There are also issues with characterisation. Hannah in particular is all too cypher-like. Ultimately her role is to be rescued by a chivalrous Englishman whose “kindness”, “gentleness” and “goodwill” has her confessing to having been “a shallow, self-pitying little bitch”. It’s all rather sickening. Although this is an illuminating lesson in Paris’s history, Faulks’s legendary storytelling is disappointingly swamped by his pursuit of ideas.
The problem at the heart of this often brilliant novel is that the clanking machinery of its themes can drown out the fiction. Fortunately, thanks to Faulks’s skill as a novelist, the fiction frequently becomes so immersive that the din of the machinery recedes. In a perfect world, though, it would have been nice to have had less clanking and more frozen fireballs.
Paris is the setting du jour this month (see also Love is Blind and French Exit) but Faulks succeeds in making the city both unfamiliar and unsettling. Teenager Tariq has run away from his home in Morocco in search of adventure and, more prosaically, a job and somewhere to live. He meets Hannah, a 31-year-old American academic who is researching the lives of women during the German occupation of the city in 1940-44. As both explore the city-Tariq on foot and the Paris Metro, Hannah through the audio recordings made by women who lived through the occupation-the ghosts of the past become visible in the present.