I’ve experienced more than thirty killing frosts in my mountains. And each time, I think of that night on the train. It’s become a ritual for me. I now understand that each year, a part of us dies. Our leaves and flowers are absorbed into the earth. But our roots are still here, dormant, waiting out the cold time. Some of us blossom again. Some do not.
(from Last Train to Paris, page 174)
Last Train to Paris is a beautifully written novel set mainly in Paris and Berlin in the years leading up to World War II. Michele Zackheim’s haunting prose tells the story of Rose “R.B.” Manon, a journalist from Nevada who is on the front lines during Hitler’s rise to power and march toward war. The novel is narrated by 87-year-old Rose as she goes through her notes from that tumultuous time when a trunk she never thought she’d see again arrives on her doorstep.
Zackheim originally set out to write a nonfiction book about a distant cousin who was kidnapped in Paris in 1937, and that storyline is worked into the novel, as Rose covers the case. The plot isn’t told in a linear fashion, which makes sense when the narrator is an elderly woman thinking back on the moments that defined her and kept her searching for closure for years. I never had trouble following the story and just sat back and enjoyed the ride as Rose’s past unfolded, from her troubled relationship with her selfish mother to her passionate love affair with a Jewish artist in Berlin forced to work for the Third Reich.
I was fascinated by Zackheim’s portrayal of Paris before and after the Occupation, contrasted with the atmosphere of doom in Berlin before and especially after Kristallnacht — especially as seen through Rose’s eyes. Rose is half-Jewish, but her American citizenship and press credentials give her a certain level of protection that wasn’t granted to European Jews. The fact that she is an American and doesn’t identify herself as Jewish, given that her mother’s family history was hidden from her for much of her childhood, Rose views the pre-war breakdown of society as an outsider and feels removed from the antisemitism she witnesses first-hand.
I loved Zackheim’s writing from the very first page. Her descriptions are rich and vivid without being overly detailed, and she moved between the past and the present so seamlessly that I hardly noticed the transition. Zackheim also keeps the story in the past for the most part, with the only present-day details being those about the person Rose became and her reflections on life as she nears its end. The use of hindsight in the narrative packed a heavy punch, showing that the consequences of what happened at the train station in Berlin were just as painful to Rose five decades later. Rose’s journalistic talents are on display in her observations of the people around her and especially herself, and there were several poignant passages that nearly had me in tears.
Last Train to Paris is a fascinating portrayal of a young woman who spends much of her life feeling small and invisible and finds herself within the enormity and loss of war. Zackheim perfectly captures the chaos and helplessness as the Nazis take over every facet of society and shows the fragility of relationships forged during such a time. I felt the excitement, hopelessness, fear, and grief right alongside Rose as she came to terms with the what-ifs and the might-have-beens that accompany such introspection. It’s a thoughtful novel with undertones of guilt, regret, sadness, and anger that left me both hurting for Rose and satisfied with the ending.
Disclosure: I received Last Train to Paris from Europa Editions for review.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.