Thursday, 21 June 2012

The House I Loved


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 Paris, 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.

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:



8 comments:

Linda Carswell said...

Thank you for the 'thumbs up' on this book....I love this author and of course LOVE Paris...(where we are at present) so this will be a great read.....I shall look for it today!!!

louciao said...

I read this review with particular interest as, coincidentally, I have this novel on hold at my local library (ie. waiting for someone to finish reading it so that I can get my eyes on it and lose myself in the story.) You've definitely reinforced my interest in reading it.

MuMuGB said...

Living in London and coming from Paris, I do love the fact that most of the houses are still here, and no hausman came here. True, it makes London a bit messier architecturally. But so much more human!

Pet said...

Oh, I must read this book! I've got a hook for houses myself, in general, and I'm right now in the middle of one of my (numerous) infatuations. And the house I'm getting so involved with is not that different from the one in your last picture!
(I'm still too shy to show my love, but I was going to post a picture of it, hidden in one of my next Posts, already in works in my Press Room!)

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

Sounds incredibly interesting...this is one for the wish list too! Your description and inclusion of photographs and maps really set me going...brilliant thank you so much!!

Jane

vicki archer said...

This is a great read... I enjoyed it very much...
Thank you for your lovely wishes today Deborah... xv

Relish said...

Thanks for this review - this book seems to have completely passed me by - I have no idea how! Paris pre-Haussmann has always held a fascination of me. I have just read Pure by Andrew Miller and loved it. Think this one could be a runner for 'Paris in July' :)

Marcheline said...

How odd... this book was on my summer reading list, only I chose to read your book first, which led me to your blog, and now here you're reviewing this book! Circles and circles, eh? 8-)

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