This was on someone-or-other’s list of “best books of the year.” I think it was a writer that I very much like, so I trusted their recommendation.
It is a novel with fairly well-developed characters. Our protagonist is an architect in Paris (hence the not-too-creative-title) in 1942. He designs buildings for the Nazis and also designs hiding places in Paris apartments for Jewish people who can pay for them. The story begins when he is helping to hide the Jews only for payment, but as things happen to make him become more aware of those he is hiding as people he realises that he is doing it because it is the right thing to do.
Belfoure does a good job of explaining why a person may do what they do during wartime. Many of the characters are quite believable, like our architect, and have complex reasons for acting as they do. Many French people turned a blind eye to what was happening to the Jews during WWII, some gentile husbands and wives left their Jewish partners to survive, and many informed on each other. Others formed the Resistance movement, and some did their bit to help Jews in secret. Many of the Nazis were evil men who enjoyed their torturous work, but some of them were just keeping their heads down and surviving in a system they did not agree with. Belfoure takes each of these types of people and introduces them as characters in a credible way.
WWII and all the complexities of human nature that it brought out is unlikely to produce any original storylines so long after the event. These themes have already been explored many times. Belfoure says that this idea of an architect who designs places for Jews to hide was inspired by a “priest hole” designer of Elizabethan times – Elizabeth was having Catholic priests sought out and executed but someone made places for them to hide, and they can be found in some Tudor houses in England that still stand today. This just adds further proof to my argument that this idea of a person risking his life to save another during wartime is not a particularly original one. This is a well-written novel but I cannot truly say that I found it as thought-provoking and emotional as some of the reviews suggest.