Book Review: Suite Française // Irène Némirovsky (Translated By Sandra Smith)

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Suite Française portrays a selfish side of humanity rarely explored within wartime novels. The honesty of this book serves a refreshing view of civilians during World War II, particularly those within the French middle classes. Often wartime novels centre on the heroic nature of people, rather than their more unsavoury qualities that war often inspires. Suite Française is a masterpiece but, above all, it is honest.

Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942 amongst the millions persecuted by Nazi Germany, and was sadly prevented to finish her masterpiece. Némirovsky’s daughters found the novel, reconstructed it, and, sixty four years after its creation, Suite Française was published and immortalised. This book has been on a remarkable journey, and luckily was not lost forever. The movie adaptation directed by Saul Dibb was recently released, creating a new wave of interest for the timeless novel. The finely crafted piece of literature is gaining all the recognition it deserves, it’s just a shame Némirovsky was never able to see it.

Originally Némirovsky intended the novel to be five separate books; only two of which were written before her death. Suite Française centres on different families during the German’s occupation of France. The first part, ‘Storm in June,’ focuses on the mass Exodus of Paris, portraying desperate families fleeing the capital. The character Hubert Péricand was extremely touching; although he seemed naïve to the true hardships of war, his view on society develops and contrasts with other characters within the novel. His perspective is very refreshing and at times heart breaking. Instead of the snobbery and selfishness exulted by most characters in ‘Storm in June’ he sees past this façade, and as his assessment of his family deteriorates his innocence begins to wear away. The second part, ‘Dolce,’ concentrates on Lucile Angellier’s love affair with Lieutenant Bruno von Falk, a German officer that takes up residence in the Angellier family home. The forbidden nature of their relationship coupled with the ever watchful eyes of Lucile’s mother-in-law create an air of suspense around the story, making it difficult to put down in parts. The character of her mother-in-law serves as the proud, judging eyes of society, showing there is little privacy during times of war. The last pages of the book are dedicated to Némirovsky’s notes on Suite Française. Alongside these are diary entries and a variety of written correspondences, by and about the author. These are a sobering and enlightening read.

Suite Française is worth reading simply for the insight into the events of World War II. The story and narrative structure are an interesting portrayal of the French higher classes, many of which are extremely proud and selfish during these hard times. It can be difficult to keep up with events due to the constant change of perspective, however this mirrors the chaotic nature of events, adding another layer to the overall atmosphere. The Appendixes and the Preface to the French edition in the back of the novel are hidden gems, showing the amount of thought and planning that went into constructing the novel and a harrowing first-hand account of the helplessness of civilians during the Nazi regime.

It is easy to see how this novel has become an instant classic, a masterpiece such as Suite Française will remain incomplete forever, a real tragedy for literature. However, the world should be grateful for what was salvaged.

Words by Melissa Churchill

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