Book Review: The Paris of the West, by Karen McMillan

cv_the_paris_of_the_westAvailable in bookshops nationwide.
Paris of the West will be celebrated at North City Paper Plus in Porirua, next Tuesday 3 May. All welcome, from 6pm – 7.30pm.

Karen McMillan is a New Zealand author. Her non-fiction titles include Unbreakable Spirit, Live in Aotearoa; Feast or Famine and Dying: A guide for the Journey, an adaption of a South African guide for the terminally ill and their loved ones. Karen’s fiction titles include Paris of the East and Watching over Me. She has worked in publishing for the last fifteen years.

The story opens in the year 1948, with the Second World War over, but with many victims suffering injuries that cannot be seen: injuries to the mind, as well as to the soul.

Celine had worked for the Polish Resistance but was captured by the Nazis and incarcerated in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Few survived. Her husband Rafael and her brother-in-law Marek were also part of the Resistance, but Rafael eventually trained as a pilot with the RAF. Rafael and Marek’s parents Beatrycze and Aron Domek had escaped Poland before the war, settling in San Francisco, often referred to as ‘The Paris of the West,’ and established shipping company the Great Star Line there. They used their influence to get berths on the SS Edwin Drake for Celine, Rafael, Marek and the Professor, Celine’s father.

They are welcomed to the USA by Beatrycze and Aron, with the invitation to share their home until they are able to find jobs and somewhere to live. Beatrycze is extremely generous to Celine, providing new clothes while making sure she is safe and comfortable. The past, however, is difficult to overcome, with Celine having constant nightmares about her treatment while in Ravensbrück. This affects her relationship with her husband Rafael. Rafael takes up the job offered by his father in the shipping company as a clerical assistant. Marek declines a similar offer, seeking a career as a journalist.

Rafael and Marek’s parents are very generous, and help to set the married couple up in their own home, while giving money to Marek for the same purpose. The couple are joined in their new home by Celine’s father, who has a journey of his own to undertake. Marek uses the money given him to live on while applying for positions as a journalist. Celine needs tutoring in English, which Marek is able to offer, and their friendship blooms as a result.

Meanwhile, Marek is falling in love with somebody else – a jazz singer called Serafina whose voice he hears each night from his home. But the course of true love never does run smooth, as Serafina’s mother tries to interfere with their relationship.

The strength of this book was its portrayal of the long-lasting effects of war, both physical and mental. While it was a great read, I was left wondering if this was part of a trilogy or just a stand-alone book. I kept wanting more, waiting for intrigue or some failure with the family’s stay in the US. I have enjoyed other books by Karen McMillan and was slightly disappointed with how this story ends.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Paris of the West
by Karen McMillan
Published by McKenzie Publishing
ISBN 9780473343910

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