Book Review: The Mercy Room by Gilles Rozier

The narrator takes you into occupied France during World War II in this starkly drawn tale of forbidden love. Entertaining a love of literature, much of it banned by the occupying forces combined with a passion for language, particularly German, the storyteller builds a secret basement library. Teaching German at an all girls school the narrator is sought out and employed by the Gestapo to translate documents. Each week while waiting outside the commander’s office the narrator watches as a steady stream of prisoners is marched by, never to be seen again.

One afternoon the narrator is startled out of complicity at the sight of Herman, a local Jewish man being herded into the detention cells. This was the same man who stirred the teacher’s heart before the occupation and it was unthinkable not to attempt a rescue. In a bold act of daring Herman is hidden away in the secret basement cubbyhole where he will remain for over two years. During that time the two share a love of banned literature and teach each other a new language as they indulge forbidden passion on dirt floor.

Rozier employs an unusual hook as the narrator’s name and gender are never revealed although some conflicting hints are offered from time to time. The narrator maintains a cold detached demeanor through much of the story getting worked up only at the thought of a sister spreading herself to hated enemies attentions, literature and stolen moments of love with Herman. Being shepherded into an unconsummated marriage and the subsequent suicide of their spouse stirs less emotional response then reading Thomas Mann or Heinrich Heine. Written with a spare style, this different take on the tried and true war romance theme is worth a look for the novelty if nothing else.

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