Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks review – in the shadow of history

The author’s affection for the city drives the stories of a French-Algerian teenage immigrant and an American academic in Paris

Nineteen-year old Tariq falls in love with his reflection while taking a pee. It’s a nicely wry update of the old Narcissus myth: a shaving glass instead of a woodland pool and a north African boy in place of the Greek youth. Tariq is too busy admiring himself to notice that he’s managed to spray the tiles around the toilet. He’s working out the best angle from which to view his face.

The possibility of seeing ourselves from a different angle is important to Faulks. In Paris Echo, he explores this by delving into the tangle of the past – familial, romantic and national. The two narrators, Hannah and Tariq, realise that the histories of war and empire cast long shadows on to present-day Paris. Tariq smuggles himself there from Morocco, searching for some trace of his dead mother and his French-Algerian heritage. He ends up crashing in Hannah’s spare room.

Hannah is older, American, a postgraduate researcher engaged in her own investigations into the wartime experience of women in occupied France. Recently returned to Paris, she finds herself flooded by memories of a failed relationship when she lived in the city 10 years earlier.

She isn’t quite an Echo to Tariq’s Narcissus, but her counternarrative propels the novel as it swings between their different perspectives. Faulks is certainly stronger in voicing Tariq’s comical longings and youthful curiosities. “One of the not so good things about being 19 is that you’re hungry all the time,” he observes glumly, before finding work in a fried chicken shop.

Hannah cuts a lonelier figure and her interior life feels thinner. She’s harder to access – perhaps deliberately – although Faulks still manages to suggest something of her vulnerability, and familiar readers will detect in his prose that hallmark tenderness toward female characters.

The merit of the book, though, is its plot, the constituent parts turning in different directions before falling into place. Hannah spends her time in an archive, piecing together the Paris of the past, while Tariq hustles for a different future, hungry for new opportunities. The forgotten history of women in wartime that Hannah uncovers is paralleled by what Tariq discovers about the pieds-noirs (ethnically French Europeans, resident in Algeria between 1830 and 1962) and the Harkis (Muslim Algerians on the side of the French during the Algerian war of independence, from 1954 to 1962).

Hannah surveys the city and finds the iniquities of history everywhere – the Vélodrome d’Hiver where French Jews were confined; Drancy, the internment camp from which they were deported. Tariq, by contrast, ebulliently jumps the barriers to the Paris Métro, exploring lines and districts, mouthing the station names to himself: “Barbès-Rochechouart! I mean, what was that?”

Neither Hannah nor Tariq is a native speaker, but learning another language, Faulks seems to suggest, is also a way to find a new perspective on yourself. A perplexed Tariq complains how the suffixes “ont, ans, am, ent, en, on, emps, ang” are all different ways of making the same sound. It’s a comic touch with a serious edge: he’s learning the language of his dead mother and finding himself at angles to her country. Hannah is a more embarrassed French speaker, having once confused onglet for anglais, but then she discovers an audio archive of wartime testimonies, full of Frenchwomen’s voices. Listening to their lives, she begins to see her own more clearly too.

The novel shifts in tone, abruptly, when she brings home a vintage photograph of a woman who looked “like a Lartigue model”, dated 1942. Soon afterwards, Tariq grows infatuated with someone who eerily resembles her – perhaps even is her. Things get stranger still when he meets an aged puppeteer called Victor Hugo, who carries an ancient leather bag, speaks with a period inflection and has mayonnaise smeared in his beard. It’s an entirely bewildering interlude and Faulks is happy to leave us scratching our heads.

Not quite magic realism, the novel veers close here to the mawkish time-travel territory of the 1990s TV series Goodnight Sweetheart. A finer analogy, though, might be Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater – another story about a teenage tearaway who explores the underbelly of a sprawling city and is prone to hallucinations. Tariq’s keen ingestion of kief – a form of cannabis – feels like a mischievous clue.

This is a puzzling novel, not entirely successful in its voices and devices, but brimming with Faulks’s deep affection for Paris. His outsider’s interest in quirky street names and quaint corners transports his readers there too. And in the end, the book is powered by his ambition to evoke that place, its ghostliness, those spectres of history, lurking around every beautiful avenue.

• Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks is published by Cornerstone. To order a copy for £14.49 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Shahidha Bari

The GuardianTramp

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