Turning facts into fiction is given to everyone. Turning a huge body of historical evidence into a factually near-perfect and thrilling novel is a rare talent. Loved the book throughout for its controlled pace of mounting intrigue and its atmosphere of smelly Paris in the mid 1890s. Enjoyed the author’s words of thanks to his wife, serving up cheerful meals to so many of his covert book sources over time.
This doorstopper of a book is ideal for people on long missions abroad, living through long, dark winters, and everyone else relishing a perfectly entertaining, bulky page turner about the greatest French scandal and miscarriage of justice of the 19th century, the Dreyfus affair. It is perfectly researched and highlights the precarious status of French Jews after France’s crushing defeat to Germany in 1870. It was the first war where artillery was used on civilian targets. France lost 130.000 souls and its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. There and then, the victors decreed a choice of allegiance: who stays becomes German, who leaves chooses for France. Most Alsatian Jews chose German citizenship, but not all… Since 1870 Jews in France became increasingly stereotyped as shifty people without a country, unreliable in war or in a French army.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army was arrested for treason to Germany. He was interrogated, tried and sentenced to exile on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony in South America. Did he get a fair hearing or trial? How conclusive was the evidence against him? Had he raised suspicion before? Was he a scapegoat for lingering defeatism? Halfway into the book, the purported author of the investigation has enough evidence to exonerate Dreyfus and indict someone else. This is where this reader bows out because from now on the plot thickens…
Written in the I-form, this brilliant novel follows the one person who witnessed all court proceedings from start to finish, Georges Picquart (40), quite a character with his North African and Indo-China experience, through whose Alsatian eyes this tale unfolds. The loss of his Alsace is key to the book, so is his Alsatian network of family and friends and fellow exiles. Robert Harris describes Paris as a city of inequalities, stereotypes and second loves, suffering from seasonal stench, but also as the capital of a French state and army rapidly embracing novelties like gas and electricity, telephone & telegraph and automobiles. Highly recommended.