Natasha Lester
The Paris Secret 
Hachette Australia, Sydney, Australia, 2020
ISBN-13: 968-1538717288

The Paris Secret

 

"I couldn’t help but reflect on how this storyline mimics some of the women of the Bible, particularly Sarah, Esther and Ruth, whose lives were dotted by challenges but who were surrounded by women who believed in, loved and supported them. "

Spanning three continents and a period stretching from World War I to the present day, The Paris Secret tells the story of four generations of women whose intersecting stories demonstrate the strength, loyalty and love that women can bring into their friendships with other women. 

The novel sweeps across the adventurous lives of many women, crossing timelines and narrations, glancing lightly into World War I and the period between the wars, before delving into World War II and then moving on to the present day.

It centres on what the reader believes is the history of one woman, Margaux Jourdan. Or is it? Who is Margaux Jourdan? Is she one woman or a nom de plume for a group of women? Is she a pilot, a spy, a traitor, a haute couture model - or a grandmother who raises her grand-daughter in Australia? And why is Margaux Jourdan important – is she a character we should like or dislike?

Listening to the story as an audio book, I couldn’t help but reflect on how this storyline mimics some of the women of the Bible, particularly Sarah, Esther and Ruth, whose lives were dotted by challenges but who were surrounded by women who believed in, loved and supported them. 

There are a number of historical threads that run through The Paris Secret.

Through visionaries like Amelia Earhart to the women who transported planes during World War II, Lester explores the historical evolution of women pilots with a collegial feminism that pushes against the boundaries and limits imposed by patriarchy to detail how they make a difference in wartime. 

We also learn about women who were spies embedded in France as part of the Resistance and consorted with Nazi officers, making enormous sacrifices, including their own lives. We learn about women in concentration camps, and the atrocities they experienced – particularly in the all-women Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, the last camp to be repatriated months after the end of World War II and which was under the management of Russian soldiers during that time. 

We hear about Christian Dior and the passion he brought to create stories around the costumes he designed, in honour of his sister, Catherine, also known as Ginette, who was a resistance fighter during World War II. And at the end of the novel, we understand why this is an important thread in The Paris Secret



The author, Natasha Lester, has taken historical events and rewritten them from the perspective of women. Lester has been honest in her research and her treatment of real people in her novel. The threads of the story are revealed slowly, using two of the present-day characters as historical researchers, with the reader kept in-step with them throughout the novel.  

I was listening to The Paris Secret at the same time as Russia was invading Ukraine and, hearing the voices of Ukrainian women speaking about their fear of Russian soldiers in those first weeks, mimicked the fear experienced by the women in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, and the traumas they tried to leave behind when they rebuilt their lives in the following decades. 

It left me with the deep impression that generational trauma is likely an imprint that, as former US tennis player Arthur Ashe wrote in his autobiography a long time ago, resurfaces as anger in every generation. 

At the end of The Paris Secret, I wondered how the long-held secrets of generational trauma were going to be interpreted by the fifth generation, the present-day children in the novel.