The story of Irene Nemirovsky’s book is undoubtedly more famous than the unfinished book itself. This edition includes not only her notes (who would have thought, she felt the same way about the priest that I did?) but also correspondence from her and her family. In some ways, this inclusion of correspondence is actually to the book’s determent. Nothing is more poignant than a desperate family trying to discover what happened to a missing family member, especially when the reader knows the outcome of the search.
The book itself is concerned with a set number of Frenchmen and woman as the Germans invade and then Occupy Paris and other towns. The first section of the book deals with the flight from Paris and desperate attempts to find safety. The second with a town under Occupation, this town is one that several Parisians escaped to, at least briefly.
The escape section’s strength is not in the shocking factor of several stories, but the everyday humanity (or cattiness) of the stories. There are the young sons who wish to fight, the mothers who are both proud and fearful, the cat that experiences a true country freedom, and a problem only the French would have – how to escape with one’s mistress and wife, in the wife’s car. The occupation section occurs later and how close can one get to those who take one’s land and food.
The power of the stories isn’t the conflicts – quite frankly the plot is something you can find in finished works set during the same time – it’s in the writing. In one chapter Nemirovsky is able to take you into a mind of a cat as he hunts his first vole, and then wrench you to the pell mell escape. It’s hard to condemn anyone –from car to food stealer to mother who forgets something (Nanny remembers the hat). It’s the use of language that makes the book a winner.