This book is available now in bookstores.
Most readers could name a few novels that focus on Nazi Germany; Schindler’s Ark, The Silver Sword, The Reader and The Book Thief all spring to my mind immediately. The Paris Architect joins the club, set in – surprise! – Paris, in 1942, as German Occupation is well and truly hitting home for the populace.
Lucien Bernard is an egotistical, ambitious, and downright greedy architect who has fallen on hard times due to commissions drying up in war time. Like other Parisians, he’s doing it hard – food shortages, rations for every type of good imaginable, and trigger happy Germans walking the streets. Approached by a wealthy industrialist to build a hiding place for a Jew in exchange for a small fortune and the opportunity to design an armaments factory for the Germans, he finds himself in a dilemma. Does he risk his own life to save a stranger’s, to get the design prize and further his career, or does he play it safe?
The Paris Architect is interested in the themes of redemption and what inspires us sacrifice our own comfort for others. The cast of characters is interesting but could be considered a bit run-of-the-mill: the selfish high-society mistress; the caring, compassionate industrialist; the ruthless, relentless Gestapo officer; the Wehrmarcht officer who shows not all Germans are killing machines. It’s often the side stories that are more interesting – ordinary Parisians who risked their all to take in Jews (often strangers) and help to smuggle them across borders.
The cover and inside pages have other reviewers praising The Paris Architect as a thriller. I wouldn’t go that far, although the pacing is good, and the middle of the book does have a sense of imminent danger. The torture scenes are awful – written with a minimum of detail, and yet the horror of what’s happening is somehow conveyed in its entirety.
There were a couple of needless distractions in the story, not least the name of Bernard’s benefactor, Auguste Manet. I have no idea why Belfoure chose the name of the father of a major 19th century French artist to be a significant character in his book (let alone one who has famous paintings named after him), but it sent me to Google to find out if the author had appropriated an actual person to include in his story (it seems not). We never get to know much about Manet, although his motivation is explained; as the catalyst for the story, I’d like to have known more about him. I also felt that Bernard’s character flaws were overplayed at the beginning – I found him thoroughly unlikeable, and consequently never really believed in the choices he made later in the story.
Despite my qualms about some of the characterisation, I enjoyed The Paris Architect – it brings Paris in the early 1940s to life, with all its dangers and uncertainty. I recommend it for a summer holiday read.
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
The Paris Architect
by Charles Belfoure
Published by Macmillan