Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

A moving novel about one woman’s escape from persecution and humanity’s ability to remain generous in the most brutal times” – a CUB must-read!

In 1921, Françoise Frenkel, a Jewish woman from Poland, establishes Berlin’s first French bookshop. It is a dream come true. The bookshop attracts artists and diplomats, celebrities and poets, as well as bringing Françoise peace, friendship and prosperity. Then, in the summer of 1939, everything changes.  Her dream ends and Françoise’s desperate and hasty flight from Nazi persecution begins. Traversing across Berlin, Paris and the picturesque landscape of southern France, No Place to Lay One’s Head is a heart-breaking novel of human cruelty and unceasing kindness; of a woman whose desire to live refuses to leave her, even in her darkest moments, and who survives only because strangers risk their lives to protect her.  

The opening chapter of this book appealed to me very deeply as Frenkel narrates how she set up her bookshop. Her feelings towards books and the connection she felt with them really resonated with me, and will with anyone who has a deep and passionate love for books. I can only imagine the heartache Françoise experienced when she had to abandon her beloved shop to flee the Nazis and their oppression of Jews.

Frenkel is excellent at transporting her reader to pre-war Paris and conveying the fear and uncertainty that not only she felt because of her race, but also other citizens of Paris. You imagine how you would feel as Germany swiftly approaches your home, with little to stop them and little you can do about it. The level of panic that was present in Paris before the outbreak of war is palpable as people try to escape the incoming invasion or acquire as many supplies as possible. It may seem impossible to visualise, but Frenkel’s narration is superb at helping you to envisage what she experienced and witnessed.

What was most moving about this novel for me was the astonishing level of kindness, care, and utter selflessness of people during Nazi occupation. French citizens shared their homes and food to protect complete strangers all because they wanted to, not because they had to or were being paid to do so (although some did receive rent in return). These people, such as the Mariuses, are inspirational as they stood up to the injustice that was sweeping across Europe. No matter what the risk was to their lives, French people did everything they could to shelter oppressed individuals and ensure their survival. 

The hotel in Nice contained residents of different nationalities and who were from different countries and cultures. Yet, that did not prevent them from being good to one another and trying to create a pleasant atmosphere in one of the darkest times in Europe’s history. All boundaries of race, ethnicity, class and nationality fell away in the hotel until all that remained were just simple human beings trying to survive. 

Frenkel does not just provide you with her own story, but also the history of the war in occupied France. This does not inhibit her narrative, but complements it because all the information she includes is relevant and conveyed in a simple and easy-to-read manner. She explains what life was like for refugees attempting to flee to safety or being housed by generous French people. As a result, the novel is that much richer as she expands her story from a personal perspective out to a wider and all-encompassing point of view.   

Overall, No Place to Lay One’s Head is a moving novel about one woman’s escape from persecution and French citizens’ ability to remain generous in one of the most dark and brutal times Europe has encountered. Frenkel’s narrative is rich and deep in giving you both a personal account and a broader perspective of life for refugees and those living under occupation. 

 

Rating: 5/5 

 

 

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