In this many-layered story, Meehan (The Salt of Broken Tears) takes the reader from the Paris of the French Revolution to the protests in those same streets in the summer of 1968, with stops in New Caledonia and Australia as well. Nicholas Lethbridge, a young lawyer from Australia, comes to Paris in 1968 in search of answers to his puzzling family history. He clutches a parcel of manuscripts that belonged to his grandmother, Agnes; the author, Sebastien Rouvel, was deeply involved in the Paris Commune of the 1870s, but he died in the Australian desert near his grandmother’s childhood home, on the in hospitable Mount Deception.
The writings make little sense, and could well be the ravings of a lunatic, but Nicholas senses a deeper story. His investigations reveal that not only does he have living relatives near Paris, but also that he may be holding a valuable, history-changing manuscript. Nicholas has assistance in his quest: Lucien, the ragged, reeking exile of Paris libraries; Julia, the romantic, manic researcher and relation of Rouvel; his great aunts Colette and Clementine, and their long-time friend and advisor, Monsieur Jalabert.
As he learns more about each of his new acquaintances and about his family’s past, Nicholas becomes confused, rather than enlightened. Each character has reasons to withhold or obscure the truth (or the truth as they believe it), leading only to more questions: why did Agnes get left behind when her mother and sisters left Australia? What was the role of Agnes’s father in the Paris Commune? What relationship was there between Rouvel and Nicholas’s family? The untangling of a century’s worth of history is a remarkable journey for both the reader and Nicholas. For those who loved A.S. Byatt’s Possession, this is a must-read.