The Safe House: Book summary and reviews of The Safe House by Christophe Boltanski

The Safe House

by Christophe Boltanski

The Safe House by Christophe Boltanski
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  • Publishes in USA 
    Oct 23, 2017
    240 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Boltanski describes his family as afraid 'of everything, of nothing, of others, of ourselves,' but 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

"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." - Kirkus

"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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Christophe Boltanski is an award-winning journalist who reported for Libération from London, Jerusalem, and the Gulf War. The Safe House is his first novel. Laura Marris is a poet, essayist, and translator. She has been a MacDowell Colony fellow, and her translation of Louis Guilloux's Le Sang noir is forthcoming from the New York Review Books.

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