The Safe House
The Safe House
In Paris’s exclusive Saint-Germain neighborhood is a mansion. In that mansion lives a family. Deep in that mansion. The Bolts are that family, and they have secrets. The Safe House tells their story.
When the Nazis came, Étienne Boltanski divorced his wife and walked out the front door, never to be seen again during the war. So far as the outside world knew, the Jewish doctor had fled. The truth was that he had sneaked back to hide in a secret crawl space at the heart of the house. There he lived for the duration of the war. With the Liberation, Étienne finally emerged, but he and his family were changed forever—anxious, reclusive, yet proudly eccentric. Their lives were spent, amid Bohemian disarray and lingering wartime fears, in the mansion’s recesses or packed comically into the protective cocoon of a Fiat.
That house (and its vehicular appendage) are at the heart of Christophe Boltanski’s ingeniously structured, lightly fictionalized account of his grandparents and their extended family. The novel unfolds room by room—each chapter opening with a floorplan— introducing us to the characters who occupy each room, including the narrator’s grandmother--a woman of “savage appetites”--and his uncle Christian, whose haunted artworks would one day make him famous. “The house was a palace,” Boltanski writes, “and they lived like hobos.” Rejecting convention as they’d rejected the outside world, the family never celebrated birthdays, or even marked the passage of time, living instead in permanent stasis, ever more closely bonded to the house itself.
The Safe House was a literary sensation when published in France in 2015 and won the Prix de Prix, France’s most prestigious book prize. With hints of Oulipian playfulness and an atmosphere of dark humor, The Safe House is an unforgettable portrait of a self-imprisoned family.
"What comes through in this short, smart, funny book is bravery and toughness, especially that of his grandmother, who in a world of imaginary and real terrors kept the family safe and together."
Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Complex and meticulously plotted; this mystery house full of odd characters will make the reader consider storytelling as the building of a physical and mental space."
"Elegant, highly visual, alternatingly airless and soaring on the wind of inspiration, Boltanski's intimate tale, gracefully translated by Laura Marris, walks a tightwire between darkness and light, melancholy and joy."
"An engrossing narrative streaked with the dreads, routine strangeness, desperate attachments, issues of identity, challenges of displacement, strategies of survival, and ultimately, hunger for living that typified the Boltanski family. This is a story about history--familial, personal, tribal, national. More specifically, the telling is vivified by the impulses that history evokes, one of which is to reanimate history itself--which perhaps is why Boltanski calls this book a 'novel.' His attuned Anglophone translator, Laura Marris, says the work 'exists in a borderland between truth and fiction, the kind of space where definitions of genre sometimes force a divide.'"
Ron Slate | On the Seawall
"The Safe House is well crafted and ingeniously structured. Christophe Boltanski is a superb stylist, moving with ease, always seamlessly, between different times and various places. Despite its claustrophobic appearance, the novel is quite spacious and emblematic in telling a story of historical horror, displacement, and human struggle for survival."
Ha Jin, author of The Boat Rocker
"Maybe every memoirist, meditating on the past, inevitably writes fiction, but Christophe Boltanski's entrancing novel walks the high wire between memory and imagination with exceptional grace, wit--and deadly force. A brilliant, moving, and entirely original work of art, which is to say a work of truth, as if a century, rather than a man, had written its memoir."
Patricia Hampl, author of Blue Arabesques
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