The Paris Library

Written by Janet Skeslien Charles
Review by Fiona Alison

Charles frames her dual narrative with the voices of Odile, a young woman working at the American Library in Paris (ALP) from the pre-war period in 1939 to liberation in 1944, and a young, lonely teenager, Lily, in small-town Montana from 1983 to 1988.

With the arrival of the Nazis, libraries are targeted for banned books and given lists to cull the stacks. Jews are forbidden entry, and some libraries are closed down, but the Directress is determined to keep the ALP open and continues to arrange delivery to subscribers and soldiers. This is a risky task Odile and her co-workers willingly undertake. During the coming years, tragic events impact Odile’s life: the imprisonment of her twin brother, the internment of a beloved mentor, tragedy and betrayal surrounding her best friend, and the Occupation itself. She carries these memories to Montana, leaving behind family and friends and her younger self.

In 1983, upon the pretense of writing a school report about France, Lily knocks on her reclusive neighbour’s door. She is curious about Odile’s life and why she left France, but Odile rarely speaks of her past. However, over the course of the next few years, she imparts valuable life lessons to Lily, drawn from her own experiences and the choices she made.

Charles worked as programme manager for the ALP in 2010, where she learned of the remarkable selflessness and bravery of the librarians during the Occupation. She has woven a fascinating tale, based on true events and historical characters, most notably Directress Dorothy Reeder. The prose contains many memorable quotes about books and libraries. An extraordinary story of friendship, love, sacrifice, betrayal and forgiveness, the novel makes one realise things are often not what they seem. This could be just one more in the recent influx of novels about Paris, but it is so very much more! A true gem for all historical fiction readers.