That night, when the house was asleep, I fetched a candle and I found that map of the city you used to like to look at. I rolled it out flat on the dining-room table, taking care not to spill any wax. Yes, I could see it, the inexorable northern advance of the rue de Rennes sprouting straight from the Montparnasse railway station to us, and the boulevard Saint-Germain, a hungry monster creeping westwards from the river. With two trembling fingers I traced their paths until my flesh met. Right over our street.
From The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay
Anyone who knows what it is to love a house and a setting will empathise with Rose Bazelet in this haunting novel. The place is
, the year 1869. The city is being redeveloped on an unprecedented scale: by order of Emperor Napoleon III, whole neighbourhoods are being torn down to make way for Baron Haussmann’s vision of modernity. Paris
Magnificent centuries-old homes, landmarks and churches are not spared. Streets are being hacked into rubble by armies of workers with pickaxes. But in one house, Rose Bazelet waits and refuses to go. The Bazelets were property owners; the house is her life, her place in the world and sanctuary, and that of her late husband Armand, to whom she writes the letters that tell her story.
Isolated in what is rapidly becoming “a chilly ghost land”, Rose remembers the grand house as it once was, with “a soul, a heart, living and breathing”; the dining room with its emerald-green leaf pattern wallpaper and gold, crimson and violet panes of stained glass in the windows; the view out onto the rue Childebert and the Erfurth fountain (image below).
Tatiana de Rosnay has a real gift for the telling descriptive detail. The prose is perfectly judged and brings the background to searing life. Lyrical and nostalgic passages – especially those of the cut flowers which I took to represent doomed beauty - are unsettled by harshly vivid scenes of the new world outside Rose’s walls: the noise and stinking clouds of dust, the soot from destructive fires, the grit in the mouths of parched onlookers.
Bitter-sweetness for the reader, too. We know that Haussmann’s new streets and six-storey buildings will make the city arguably the most beautiful in the world. Yet we are witnessing the human cost of the transformation. The failed protests. The unlikely alliances and comrades- in-arms. The sheer stubbornness of the spirit when there is nothing more to lose.
Throughout it all, we learn more of Rose’s relationships with her husband, her children and the unlikely friends she has made late in life after his death. Compelling and deceptively easy to read, it’s a multi-layered book about strength and family, a literary novel to be savoured rather than rushed through simply for the story – although I found that both satisfying and poignant too, especially when I read the final page, an extract (a real one?) from Le Petit Journal newspaper.
And if it’s a mark of a good read that you want to find out more about the book’s historical basis, then this is a great one. The next time I’m in Paris, admiring the boulevard Haussmann and the other grand streets that cut so confidently through the city, I will pause a while and imagine the other Paris, gone forever. Here is a contemporary picture, Percement de la rue de Rennes; and below it a corner of the boulevard Haussmann: