It may be one of most romantic cities in the world, but with what has been visited upon the French capital in the past twelve months, you’d think I’d be turned off going there. On the contrary, this makes me more determined than ever to fan the flames of love in its various arrondissements, walking hand in hand along the banks of the Seine or sittiing outside it’s cafe’s and boulangeries drinking coffee and nibbling fresh flaky croissants while admiring the architecture. Thus bringing us on to this month’s book – it’s The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.
As Lucien Bernard the Architect of the title, rounds a corner of a street in Paris he almost bumps into a man running in the opposite direction. In the split second that it takes for the man to pass, Lucien notices that he is wearing the same cologne as himself. He hears a gun shot, turning he sees the man is lying dead on the pavement behind him, blood pouring from his head. He is a Jew.
This opening scene from “The Paris Architect” reflects the tone of the book. Set in 1940’s Nazi-occupied Paris, the book explores the intersection of normal, everyday life with the terror of living-on-the-edge, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time could mean death, torture or deportation to a prison camp.
The book’s central character, Lucien, is a handsome young architect battling with the deprivations of occupied Paris – little work, scarcity of food, rationing. Self-centered and egotistical, as the story begins Lucien is frustrated that the war has deprived him of the opportunity to display his modernist architectural talents and, in the process, becoming rich and renowned, achieving the social status and acclaim that he, by his own lights, truly deserves.
On the morning of the shooting, Lucien is heading for a fateful meeting with a rich industrialist, Auguste Manet. He is expecting a commission to design an armaments factory for the German military. Manet’s proposition is, however, entirely different. He wants Lucien to incorporate a secret hiding place in an apartment that is to be used to accommodate a Jewish friend until he can be moved to safety. Lucien’s horror at being asked to do such a dangerous task is only slightly assuaged by the very large sum of money that Manet offers. Even the indication that this would lead to the expected factory commission does little to persuade Lucien to take on such a suicidal job. The hook that reels him in is the architectural challenge. He envisages an elegant solution, an ingenious hiding place that no Gestapo search party would find…
So begins Lucien’s transformation. As his fascination for devising architectural solutions
draws him into a life-threatening web of secrecy and intrigue, Lucien’s arrogant self-confidence is challenged by tragedy and by exposure to the self-sacrifice and bravery of others. A very unlikely hero emerges.
Lucien is soon leading a double life – surreptitiously visiting apartments to design hiding places while also socialising with German officers to progress his factory proposals. As his life becomes more and more dangerously complicated – he becomes friends with a Wehrmacht officer, the Paris Resistance targets him as a collaborator, his mistress takes a Gestapo lover, he takes in an orphaned Jewish boy – the tension and terror heightens.
And it isn’t only Lucien’s life that generates nail-biting tension. Balfoure’s description of the coldly casual brutality of Nazi killing of civilians is truly shocking, bringing home what it must be like to live under a reign of terror.
It also raises uncomfortable questions for the reader. What would we do if we were faced with a similar situation? Would we risk our life and those of our family to protect others from atrocity? Or would we adopt Lucien’s wife approach that “in wartime, Christian brotherhood takes a back seat to saving one’s own skin.”
Balfoure’s description of the sadism of the Gestapo and the grotesque consequences for those found helping Jews – and even those who are only living in the same apartment block – brings into sharp focus why it was that ordinary people in Germany and occupied Europe looked the other way and ‘allowed’ unconscionable atrocities to be carried out all around them. I, unfortunately, have to admit that I would do the same.
An architect by profession, this is Balfoure’s first book of two works of fiction, published in 2013, the other is House of Thieves published last year (www.charlesbelfoure.com). The idea for Lucien’s ‘hook’ is based on the actual incorporation of secret hiding places for persecuted priests in houses of Catholic sympathizers during the reign of Elizabeth 1st. Balfoure’s own love of architectural problem-solving is evident throughout. Although spatially challenged, even I found his descriptions of the design of hiding places compellingly fascinating, making Lucien’s risk taking and subsequent transformation wholly believable.
Written with a true story-teller’s flair, the narrative unfolds at a fast, page-turning pace – until close to the end, which is disappointingly clichéd (written with a film deal in mind?). Despite this one reservation, it’s a really good thought-provoking read.
We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers and followers on the various social media a very happy New Year. Thanks for stopping by and for spreading the word. We hope you enjoy the book reviews that we’ve have left beyond The Library Door and will continue to leave over 2016. Adrian