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THOSE WHO REMEMBER THE NIGHT Armand Sauvelle passed away would swear that a purple light flashed across the sky, leaving in its wake a trail of blazing ashes that faded away over the horizon—a light that his daughter, Irene, never saw, but that would haunt her dreams for years to come.
It was a cold winter’s dawn, and the windowpanes in Ward 14 of Saint George’s Hospital were covered in a film of ice.
Armand Sauvelle’s flame went out silently, without so much as a sigh. His wife, Simone, and his daughter, Irene, looked up as the first glimmer of day cast needles of light across the hospital ward. His youngest child, Dorian, was asleep on one of the chairs. A heartrending stillness filled the room. No words were necessary to explain what had happened. After he’d suffered for six months, an illness whose name he was never able to pronounce had snatched away Armand Sauvelle’s life.
It was the beginning of the worst year the Sauvelle family would ever experience.
Armand Sauvelle took his charm and his infectious laughter with him to the grave, but his numerous debts did not accompany him on his final journey. Soon a whole horde of creditors and vultures wearing elegant frock coats began to drop by the Sauvelles’ home on Boulevard Haussmann. After the legal niceties of those first visits came the veiled threats. And these soon gave way to the seizure of the family’s assets.
Prestigious schools and beautifully tailored clothes were replaced by part-time jobs and simpler outfits for Irene and Dorian. This was the beginning of the Sauvelles’ spectacular fall into the real world. The one who came off the worst, however, was Simone. She returned to her job as a teacher, but the work did not provide enough income to stem the torrent of debt that consumed the family’s limited resources. New documents signed by Armand seemed to crop up everywhere; Simone faced a seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of unpaid loans and letters of credit.
By this point young Dorian had begun to suspect that half the population of Paris was made up of lawyers and accountants, a special breed of ravenous rodent that lived aboveground. Also by then, and without telling her mother, Irene had taken a job in a dance hall. For just a few coins (which, in the early hours of the morning, she would slip into the box Simone kept hidden under the kitchen sink), she would dance with clumsy young soldiers with sweaty hands who were really no more than frightened children themselves.
At the same time, the Sauvelles discovered that the list of people who used to call themselves friends was evaporating like dew in the morning sun. That summer, however, Henri Laffont, an old friend of Armand Sauvelle, offered the family a small apartment above the art shop he managed in Montparnasse. He waved aside the rent, to be repaid in better times. All he asked in exchange for putting them up was Dorian’s assistance as an errand boy, because his knees were no longer what they had once been. Simone could never find enough words with which to thank old Monsieur Laffont for his kindness. But the shopkeeper didn’t expect any thanks. In a world of rats, they’d happened upon an angel.
As the first days of winter sent a chill through the streets, Irene turned fourteen years of age, although she felt more like twenty-four. For once, she spent the coins she earned in the dance hall on herself and bought a cake with which to celebrate her birthday with Simone and Dorian. Armand’s absence still weighed on them like an oppressive shadow. They blew out the candles together in the narrow sitting room of their apartment on the Rue de Rennes, making a wish that the bad luck that had been hounding them for months would be extinguished along with the flames. For once, their wish was not ignored. Although they were unaware of it, the year of darkness was coming to an end.
Some weeks later a ray of hope unexpectedly burst into the lives of the Sauvelle family. Thanks to the influence of Monsieur Laffont and his network of acquaintances, Simone was offered a good job in Blue Bay, a small village on the coast far from the dreary grayness of Paris and the sad memories of Armand Sauvelle’s last days. Apparently, a wealthy inventor and toy manufacturer named Lazarus Jann needed a housekeeper to take care of his palatial residence amid the forest of Cravenmoore.
The inventor lived in a huge mansion next to his old toy factory, which was now closed, with his wife, Alexandra, who was seriously ill and had been bedridden for twenty years. The pay was generous, and Lazarus Jann was offering them the possibility of moving into Seaview, a modest house that stood on the edge of the cliffs on the other side of Cravenmoore forest.
In the middle of June 1937 Monsieur Laffont bid good-bye to the Sauvelle family on Platform 6 of the Gare du Nord. Simone and her two children boarded the train that was to take them to the Normandy coast. As Monsieur Laffont watched the carriages disappear into the distance, he smiled to himself for a moment; he had the feeling that the story of the Sauvelles—their real story—had only just begun.
NORMANDY, SUMMER OF 1937
ON THEIR FIRST DAY AT SEAVIEW, Irene and her mother tried to instill some sort of order into what was to be their new home. Meanwhile, Dorian discovered a new passion: geography. Or, to be precise, mapmaking. Equipped with the pencils and drawing book Henri Laffont had given him as a parting gift, Simone Sauvelle’s younger child retreated to a spot on the cliffs, a vantage point from which he could enjoy the spectacular view.
The village with its small fishing dock occupied the center of the large bay. To the east, an endless expanse of white sand, known as the Englishman’s Beach, stretched along the water’s edge. Farther on, the narrow point of the headland jutted out into the sea like a giant claw, separating Blue Bay from the wide gulf the locals called Black Bay because of its dark, deep waters. The Sauvelles’ new home was perched on the very tip of the headland.
Half a mile out to sea, Dorian detected a small island with a lighthouse. The lighthouse tower stood dark and mysterious, its edges blurred by the shimmering haze. Turning his head back toward land, he could see his sister, Irene, and his mother standing on the porch of the house.
Seaview was a two-story building of white timber perched on the clifftop. Behind it grew a thick forest, and just above the treetops, he could see the majestic residence of Lazarus Jann: Cravenmoore.
Cravenmoore looked more like a castle than a home, the product of an extravagant and twisted imagination. A cathedral-like construction of arches, flying buttresses, towers, and domes adorned its angular roof. The building itself was shaped like a cross, with various wings sprouting from it. An army of gargoyles and stone angels guarded the façade like a flock of petrified specters. As Dorian closed his drawing book and prepared to return to Seaview, he wondered what kind of person would choose to live in a place like that. He would soon find out: That night they had been invited to dine at Cravenmoore, courtesy of their new benefactor.
Irene’s new bedroom faced northwest. Gazing out of her window, she could see the lighthouse and the patches of light cast by the sun over the ocean. After months of imprisonment in the tiny Paris apartment, the luxury of having a room to herself and being able to close the door and enjoy her own private space felt sinfully good.
As she watched the sea turn to copper in the setting sun, Irene faced the dilemma of what to wear for her first dinner with Lazarus Jann. She had only a few items left from what had once been a huge wardrobe, and the idea of being received at Cravenmoore mansion made all her dresses seem like embarrassing old rags. After trying on the only two outfits that might do, Irene noticed another problem she hadn’t counted on.
Ever since she had turned thirteen, her body had insisted on adding volume in some places and losing it in others. Now, close to her fifteenth birthday, Irene was more aware than ever of the influence of nature as she looked in the mirror. The severe cut of her drab clothes did not match her new curvaceous shape.
Shortly before nightfall, Simone Sauvelle rapped gently on Irene’s door.
Her mother closed the door behind her and quickly assessed the situation. All of Irene’s dresses were laid out on the bed. Wearing only a plain white vest, her daughter was kneeling by the window, staring out at the distant lights of the ships in the channel. Simone observed Irene’s slender body and smiled to herself.
“Time flies and we don’t even notice, do we?”
“None of them fits me. I’m sorry,” Irene replied. “I’ve tried.”
Simone went to the window and kneeled down next to her daughter. In the middle of the bay, the lights of the village spread ripples of color over the water. For a moment, they both gazed at the spectacle. Simone stroked her daughter’s face and smiled.
“I think we’re going to like this place. What do you think?” she asked.
“But what about us? Is he going to like us?”
“We’re a charming family. He’ll love us,” replied Simone.
“Are you sure?”
“I certainly hope so.”
Irene pointed to her clothes.
“Wear something of mine,” Simone said, smiling. “I think my dresses will look better on you than they do on me.”
Irene blushed. “Don’t exaggerate.”
“Just you wait and see.”
Dorian’s expression when he saw his sister arrive at the foot of the stairs draped in one of Simone’s dresses was priceless. Irene fixed her green eyes on her brother and raised a threatening finger.
“Not one word,” she warned.
Dorian nodded mutely, unable to take his eyes off this stranger who spoke with Irene’s voice. Simone noticed this and tried not to smile. She placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and kneeled down to straighten the purple bow tie he had inherited from his father.
“You’ll spend your life surrounded by women, son. You’d better start getting used to it.”
By the time the clock on the wall struck eight they were all ready for the great event, dressed in their smartest clothes. They were also terrified.
A light breeze blowing in from the sea stirred the thick forest surrounding Cravenmoore. The rustling of invisible leaves accompanied their footsteps as Simone and her two children walked along the path through the woods. A pale moon struggled to break through the canopy of shadows, and hidden birds nesting in the crowns of the century-old giants called out to one another in an unnerving chorus.
“This place gives me the creeps,” said Irene.
“Nonsense,” her mother snapped. “It’s only a forest. On you go.”
From his position at the rear, Dorian glanced around at the twisted forms of the vegetation. In the darkness his imagination transformed the sinister shapes into dozens of evil creatures lying in wait.
“In the daylight you’ll see there’s nothing out there but bushes and trees,” said Simone Sauvelle, not sounding entirely sure herself.
A few minutes later, after a trek that Irene thought was never going to end, the imposing profile of Cravenmoore stood before them. Golden beams of light shone from the large windows beneath a jagged forest of gargoyles. Beyond the house they could make out the toy factory, an annex to the main building.
Once they were out of the woodland, Simone and her children stopped to contemplate the immensity of the toymaker’s residence. Suddenly a bird that looked like a crow emerged from the undergrowth, flapped its wings, and took off, taking a curious route over the gardens that surrounded Cravenmoore. After circling one of the stone fountains it alighted at Dorian’s feet. When it had stopped flapping its wings, the crow lay on its side and began to rock gently to and fro until it came to rest. Dorian crouched down and cautiously stretched out his right hand.
“Be careful,” warned Irene.
Ignoring her advice, Dorian stroked the crow’s feathers. The bird showed no signs of life. Dorian lifted it up and unfolded its wings. He looked puzzled, then dismayed. He turned to Irene and Simone.
“It’s made of wood,” he murmured.
They all looked at one another. Simone sighed.
“Let’s just make a good impression, all right?” she begged her children.
They both nodded in agreement. Dorian placed the bird back on the ground. Simone Sauvelle gave a hint of a smile, and then the three of them climbed the white marble staircase that snaked toward the large bronze entrance.
The doors of Cravenmoore opened automatically, before they’d even had time to use the brass knocker, which was shaped like an angel’s face. A figure stood in the doorway, silhouetted against the aura of light that poured from the house. The figure suddenly came alive, tilting its head with a soft mechanical click. As it did so, they could see its face for the first time. It stared at them with lifeless eyes, simple glass beads encased in a mask that was frozen in a spine-chilling grin.
Dorian gulped. Irene and her mother took a step back. The figure stretched out one hand and then stood still again.
“I hope Christian didn’t frighten you. He’s a rather clumsy old creation of mine.”
The Sauvelles turned toward the voice that came from the foot of the marble stairs. A kind, gracefully aging face was smiling up at them mischievously. Blue eyes sparkled beneath a thick, silvery mop of well-groomed hair. The man, who was elegantly dressed and held an ebony walking stick with colored inlays, climbed the steps toward them, and then bowed politely.
“My name is Lazarus Jann, and I think I owe you an apology.”
His voice was warm and comforting. His large blue eyes scrutinized each member of the family until finally they came to rest on Simone’s face.
“I was taking my usual evening walk through the forest and was delayed. Madame Sauvelle, I believe?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Please call me Lazarus.”
Simone nodded. “This is my daughter, Irene,” she said. “And this is Dorian, the youngest in the family.”
Lazarus Jann shook their hands courteously. His grasp was firm and pleasant, his smile infectious.
“Right. As for Christian, don’t let him frighten you. I keep him as a souvenir of my first period. He’s awkward and doesn’t look very friendly, I know.”
“Is he a machine?” asked Dorian quickly. He was fascinated.
Simone’s scolding look came too late. Lazarus smiled at Dorian.
“You could call him that. Technically, Christian is what is known as an automaton.”
“Did you build him, sir?”
“Dorian,” his mother reproached him.
Lazarus smiled again. The boy’s curiosity didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
“Yes. I built him, and many more besides. That is, or rather was, my profession. But I think dinner is ready. Shall we discuss this, and get to know one another better, over a nice plate of food?”
The smell of a delicious roast wafted toward them.
Neither the alarming reception by the automaton nor the impressive exterior of Cravenmoore could have prepared the Sauvelles for the interior of Lazarus Jann’s mansion. No sooner had they stepped through the front door than they were submerged in a world of fantasy far beyond anything they could have imagined.
A sumptuous staircase seemed to spiral toward infinity. Looking up, the Sauvelles could see it vanishing into the central tower of Cravenmoore, which was crowned by a small turret with windows all around, infusing the house with an otherworldly light. Beneath this spectral glow lay an immense gallery of mechanical creations. On one of the walls, a large clock with cartoon eyes smiled at the visitors. A ballerina wrapped in a transparent veil pirouetted in the center of an oval hall in which every object, every detail, formed part of the world of fantastical creatures brought to life by Lazarus Jann. The doorknobs were smiling faces that winked as you turned them. A large owl with magnificent plumage slowly dilated its glass pupils as it flapped its wings. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of miniature figures and toys filled an endless array of display cabinets it would have taken a whole lifetime to explore. A small mechanical puppy wagged its tail and barked playfully as a tiny metal mouse scurried by. Hanging from the ceiling, a merry-go-round of dragons and stars danced in midair to the distant notes of a music box.
Wherever they looked, the Sauvelles discovered new marvels, impossible new creations that defied anything they had ever seen before. For a few minutes all three of them just stood there, completely bewitched.
“It’s… it’s amazing!” Irene said, unable to believe her eyes.
“Well, this is only the entrance hall. But I’m glad you like it,” said Lazarus, leading them toward Cravenmoore’s grand dining room.
Dorian’s eyes were as big as saucers. He was speechless. Simone and Irene, who were equally stunned, tried hard not to fall under the spell cast by the house.
The room where dinner was served was no less impressive than the entryway. From the glassware to the cutlery, from the crockery to the rich carpets covering the floor, everything bore the mark of Lazarus Jann. Not one object in the house seemed to belong to the real world, to the drab, horribly mundane world they had left behind the moment they’d stepped inside the mansion. But Irene’s eyes were glued to a large painting that hung above the fireplace, which was shaped like the flaming jaws of a dragon. It was a portrait of a lady wearing a white dress. She was stunningly beautiful. The power of her gaze seemed to transcend the painter’s brush. For a few seconds, Irene was mesmerized by her strange, captivating eyes.
“My wife, Alexandra… when she was still in good health. Marvelous days those were,” said Lazarus behind her, his voice tinged with sadness.
The dinner passed pleasantly in the glow of the flames. Lazarus Jann proved to be an excellent host who quickly charmed Dorian and Irene with his jokes and astonishing stories. After the first few minutes, the initial tension lifted and the Sauvelles began to join in the toymaker’s relaxed conversation. As the evening wore on, he told them that the delicious food had been prepared by Hannah, a girl of Irene’s age who worked for him as a cook and a maid.
By the time they started on the second course (roast turkey, Hannah’s specialty) the Sauvelles felt as if they were in the presence of an old friend. Simone was relieved to see that the affection flowing between her children and Lazarus was mutual. Even she was falling for his charm.
Between one anecdote and the next, Lazarus also gave them polite explanations about the house and the nature of the duties Simone’s new job entailed. Friday night was Hannah’s night off, and she spent it with her family in Blue Bay. But they would get the chance to meet her as soon as she returned to work, Lazarus said. Hannah was the only other person, apart from Lazarus and his wife, who lived at Cravenmoore. She would help the Sauvelles settle in and deal with any queries that might arise concerning the house.
When the dessert arrived—an irresistible raspberry tart—Lazarus began to sketch out what he expected of them. Although he had retired, he still worked occasionally in his workshop, which occupied an adjacent building. Both the factory and the rooms on all floors above ground level were forbidden to them. They must never, under any circumstances, set foot in any of them. Especially in the west wing, as this was where his wife lived.
For more than twenty years, Alexandra Jann had been suffering from a strange and incurable disease that confined her to her bed. Lazarus’s wife lived on the second floor of the west wing, in a room that only her husband entered, in order to look after her and provide her with the care her condition required. The toymaker told them that his wife, once a beautiful young woman, full of life, had caught the mysterious illness while they were traveling around central Europe.
The deadly virus slowly took hold of her, and very soon she could barely walk. Within six months her health had deteriorated further, turning her into a complete invalid, a sad reminder of the person he had married only a few years earlier. Twelve months after she caught the disease, her memory began to fail, and in a matter of weeks she could scarcely recognize her own husband. From that point on she stopped speaking, and looking into her eyes was like gazing into a bottomless well. Alexandra Jann was twenty-six at the time. She had never since left Cravenmoore.
The Sauvelles listened in silence to Lazarus’s sad account. Though he was obviously distressed by his memories and by the two decades of solitude, he tried to downplay the matter by shifting the conversation to Hannah’s mouthwatering tart. But the sorrow in his eyes did not go unnoticed by Irene.
It wasn’t hard for her to imagine why Lazarus Jann had escaped into a place of his own making. Deprived of what he loved most, he had taken refuge in a fantasy world, creating hundreds of creatures with which to fill the deep loneliness surrounding him.
As she listened to the toymaker’s words, Irene realized she would no longer be able to view Cravenmoore as the magnificent product of a boundless imagination, the ultimate expression of the genius that had created it. Having learned to recognize the emptiness of her own loss, she knew this place to be little more than the dark reflection of the solitude that had overwhelmed Lazarus during the past twenty years. Each piece of that marvelous world was a silent tear.
By the time they had finished dinner, Simone Sauvelle was quite clear about her obligations and responsibilities. Her duties would be rather like those of a housekeeper, a job that had little to do with her original profession as a teacher. Nevertheless, she was prepared to do her best in order to guarantee a good future for her children. Simone would supervise Hannah’s chores and those of the occasional servants; she would be in charge of all administrative work and the maintenance of Lazarus Jann’s property; she would deal with suppliers and shopkeepers; she would take care of the post; and she would guarantee that nothing and nobody from the outside world would intrude on the toymaker’s privacy. Her job also included buying books for Lazarus’s library. Her employer had made it clear that her past work as a teacher had been one of the reasons he’d chosen her over other candidates with far greater experience in housekeeping. Lazarus insisted that this was one of her most important responsibilities.
In exchange for her work, Simone and her children would be allowed to live at Seaview, and she would receive a more than reasonable salary. Lazarus would take care of Irene and Dorian’s school expenses for the following year, which would begin at the end of the summer. He also promised to cover the costs of university degrees for both children if they showed the ability and the interest. For their part, Irene and Dorian could help their mother with whatever tasks she assigned them in the mansion, as long as they respected the golden rule: never to exceed the boundaries the owner had laid down for them.
To Simone, considering all the misery of the previous months, Lazarus’s offer seemed like a blessing from heaven. Blue Bay was an idyllic place to start a new life with her children. The job was very desirable, and Lazarus was evidently a kind and generous employer. Sooner or later, luck had to come their way. Fate had sent them to this remote location, and for the first time in a long while Simone was prepared to accept what it was offering her. In fact, if her instincts were correct—and they usually were—she perceived a genuine warmth flowing toward her and her family. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that their company and their presence at Cravenmoore could help soothe the immense solitude in which its owner seemed to live.
Dinner ended with a cup of coffee and Lazarus’s promise to a stunned Dorian that, if he wished, he would one day be initiated into the mysteries of the construction of automata. The boy’s eyes lit up, and for a brief moment Simone and Lazarus’s gazes met. Simone recognized in his look a trace of loneliness, a shadow she knew only too well. The toymaker half closed his eyes and stood up quietly, indicating that the evening was at an end.
He led them toward the front door, stopping every now and then to tell them about one of the amazing objects they saw along the way. Dorian and Irene listened glassy-eyed to his explanations. Shortly before they came to the entrance hall, Lazarus halted in front of what looked like a complex construction made of mirrors and lenses. Without saying a word, he put his arm into a gap between two mirrors. Slowly, the reflection of his hand grew smaller until it vanished. Lazarus smiled.
“You mustn’t believe everything you see. The image of reality we perceive with our eyes is only an illusion, an optical effect,” he said. “Light is a great liar. Here, give me your hand.”
Dorian did as he was told and let the toymaker guide his hand through the passage between the mirrors. The image faded before his very eyes. Dorian turned to Lazarus and gave him a puzzled look.
“Do you know anything about the laws of optics?” the man asked him.
Dorian shook his head.
“Magic is only an extension of physics. Are you good at math?”
“Not bad, except when it comes to trigonometry.”
“We’ll start there, then. Fantasy is derived from numbers. That’s the trick.”
The boy nodded, although he wasn’t quite sure what Lazarus was talking about. Finally, Lazarus showed them the way to the door. It was then that, almost by chance, Dorian thought he witnessed something impossible. As they walked past one of the flickering lamps, their bodies cast shadows against the wall. All of them but one: Lazarus’s body left no trace of a shadow, as if his presence were only a mirage.
When Dorian turned around, Lazarus was observing him intently. The boy swallowed hard. The toymaker nipped his cheek in a friendly manner.
“Don’t believe everything you see….”
Dorian followed his mother and sister out of the house.
“Thanks for everything. Good night,” said Simone.
“It’s been a pleasure, and I’m not just saying that to be polite,” said Lazarus. He gave them a warm smile and raised a hand in farewell.
The Sauvelles entered the forest shortly before midnight, on their way back to Seaview.
Dorian was quiet, still entranced by memories of Lazarus Jann’s house of marvels. Irene also seemed to be in some other world, lost in her thoughts. Simone sighed with relief and thanked God for their good luck.
Just before Cravenmoore’s outline disappeared behind them, Simone turned to take a last look. The only light came from a window on the second floor of the west wing. A figure stood, unmoving, behind the curtains. At that precise moment, the light went out and the window was plunged into darkness.
Back in her room, Irene took off the dress her mother had lent her and folded it carefully over the chair. She could hear Simone and Dorian talking in the next room. She turned off the light and lay down on the bed. Blue shadows danced across the ceiling, and the murmur of waves breaking against the cliffs caressed the silence; Irene closed her eyes and tried in vain to fall asleep.
It was hard to believe that from that night on she would never have to see their old Paris apartment again, nor would she have to return to the dance hall to relieve those soldiers of a few coins. She knew that the shadows of the big city couldn’t reach her here. She got up and walked to the window.
Outside, the lighthouse rose up against the dark night. Irene focused on the small island, which was enveloped in a luminous mist. A sudden light seemed to shine, like the blink of a faraway mirror. Seconds later, the light shone again, then went out. Irene frowned, then noticed that her mother was standing on the porch below. Wrapped in a thick sweater, Simone was quietly gazing out to sea. Irene didn’t have to see her face to know that she was crying. They would both take a long time to fall asleep. On their first night at Seaview, after that first step toward what seemed to be a new and happy life, Armand Sauvelle’s absence was more painful than ever.
OF ALL THE DAWNS IN HER LIFE, none would ever seem as radiant to Irene as that of June 22, 1937. The ocean glistened beneath a sky so clear she could scarcely have imagined it during the years she’d lived in the city. From her window, she could clearly see the lighthouse, as well as the small rocks that stood out in the center of the bay like the crest of some underwater dragon. The neat row of houses along the seafront, beyond the Englishman’s Beach, quivered through the heat haze rising from the docks. If she half closed her eyes, it seemed like a paradise conjured by Claude Monet, her father’s favorite artist.
Irene opened the window and let the salty sea air fill the room. A flock of seagulls nesting on the cliffs turned to observe her with curiosity—her new neighbors. Not far away, Irene noticed that Dorian had already set himself up in his favorite spot among the rocks. He was probably busy cataloging his daydreams, his flights of fancy, or whatever it was that engrossed him during his solitary wanderings.
She was trying to make up her mind what to wear when she heard an unfamiliar voice, speaking fast and cheerfully, downstairs. She listened carefully for a couple of seconds and could hear the calm, composed voice of her mother attempting to respond, or rather trying to slip a word or two into the few gaps left by the other person.
As she got dressed, Irene tried to imagine what the owner of the voice would look like. Ever since she was small, that had been one of her favorite things—listening to a voice with her eyes closed and trying to conjure the person it belonged to: imagining height, weight, facial features…
This time she imagined a young woman, not very tall, nervous and fidgety, with dark hair, and probably dark eyes, too. With that portrait in mind Irene set off down the stairs to satisfy both her hunger, with a good breakfast, and, more important, her curiosity.
As soon as she went into the sitting room, she realized her first, and only, mistake: The girl’s hair was straw-colored. As for the rest, she’d been right. That is how Irene first met the quirky and chatty young Hannah; not by sight, but by sound.
Simone Sauvelle did her best to repay Hannah for the meal she had prepared for them the night before with a delicious breakfast. The young girl devoured her food even faster than she spoke. The torrent of anecdotes, gossip, and stories about the town and its inhabitants, which she reeled off at lightning speed, meant that after only a few minutes of her company Simone and Irene felt as if they’d known Hannah all their lives.
Between bites of toast, Hannah summarized her biography in a few quick installments. She would be sixteen in November; her parents owned a house in the village; her father was a fisherman and her mother a baker; her cousin Ismael, who’d lost both his parents years ago, also lived with them and helped her father on his boat. She no longer went to school because that old witch Jeanne Brau, the headmistress of the local school, had decided she was thick, or at least not very bright. Ismael, however, was teaching her to read, and every week she was getting better at her times tables. Her favorite color was yellow, and she liked collecting shells along the Englishman’s Beach. Her favorite pastime was listening to romance serials on the radio and going to the summer dances held in the main square, when traveling bands came to the village. She didn’t use perfume, but she loved lipstick….
Listening to Hannah was entertaining and exhausting in equal measure. After wolfing down her own breakfast and Irene’s leftovers, she stopped talking for a few seconds. The silence that filled the room felt unreal. It didn’t last long, of course.
“Shall we go for a walk so I can show you the village?” she asked, suddenly excited at the prospect of acting as a tour guide.
Irene and her mother exchanged glances.
“I’d love that,” Irene said after a short pause.
Hannah smiled from ear to ear and said, “Don’t worry, Madame Sauvelle. I’ll bring her back in one piece.”
Irene and her new friend shot out through the front door and set off toward the Englishman’s Beach, while the house slowly recovered its sense of calm. Simone took her cup of coffee out onto the porch to enjoy the peaceful morning. Dorian waved at her from the cliffs.
Simone waved back at him. Curious boy, always alone. He didn’t seem to be interested in making friends, or perhaps he didn’t know how to. Always lost in his own world and his notebooks, and whatever else filled his mind… As she finished her coffee, Simone took one last look at Hannah and her daughter walking off toward the village. Hannah was still chatting away. It takes all sorts, she thought.
Learning about the mysteries and subtleties of life in a small coastal village took up most of the Sauvelles’ time that first month in Blue Bay. The initial phase—a period characterized by culture shock and confusion—lasted a good week. During that time they discovered that, apart from the metric system, all the customs, rules, and peculiarities of Blue Bay were completely different from their Paris equivalents. First, there was the question of timekeeping. In Paris it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that for every thousand inhabitants there were another thousand watches—tyrannical inventions that organized life with military precision. Yet in Blue Bay there seemed to be no other timepiece than the sun. And no other cars but Doctor Giraud’s, the vehicle belonging to the police, and Lazarus’s car. And no other… the list seemed endless. Deep down, though, the differences didn’t lie in the number of things, but in the way of life.
Paris was a city of strangers, a place where you could live for years without knowing the name of the person who lived across the landing. In Blue Bay you couldn’t sneeze or scratch the tip of your nose without the event being widely commented on by the whole community. This was a village where even a cold was news, and where news was passed on quicker than a cold. There was no local paper, nor was there any need for one.
It was Hannah’s mission to instruct the family on the life, history, and wonders of the small community. Because of the dizzying speed with which the girl machine-gunned out her words, she managed to compress into a few sessions enough information to fill an encyclopedia. This was how they found out that Laurent Savant, the local priest, organized diving championships and marathons, and that on top of his stammering sermons about laziness and lack of exercise, he’d covered more miles on his bicycle than Marco Polo ever traveled. They also learned that the village council met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at one o’clock to discuss local issues. During these meetings, Jean-Luc Dupuy, who had effectively been appointed mayor of Blue Bay for life and was as old as Methuselah, spent a good deal of time stroking the cushions of his armchair under the table, convinced that he was exploring the hefty thighs of Antoinette Fabré, the town hall’s treasurer and a fierce spinster.
Hannah rattled out an average of six stories per minute. This was not unrelated to the fact that her mother, Elisabet, worked in the bakery, which seemed to double as an information hub, detective bureau, and advice dispensary for the village.
It did not take long for the Sauvelles to realize that the village financial system tended toward a rather strange twist on Parisian capitalism. The bakery, it would appear, sold baguettes, but in the back room an information exchange was also in operation. Monsieur Desplat, the cobbler, mended belts, zips, and the soles of shoes. However, his forte was his second profession: astrologer and tarot-card reader….
This pattern was repeated over and over again. On the surface, life seemed calm and simple, but underneath, it had more twists and turns than the road to hell. The best thing to do was to go with the flow, to listen to the villagers and allow them to guide you through all the formalities newcomers had to complete before they could say they lived in Blue Bay.
That is why, every time Simone went to the village to collect the mail for Lazarus, she dropped by the bakery to get an update on past, present, and future news. The ladies of Blue Bay received her warmly and soon began to bombard her with questions about her enigmatic employer. Lazarus led a secluded life and was seldom seen in the village. That, together with the torrent of books he received every week, had turned him into a source of endless curiosity and suspicion.
“Imagine, Simone, dear friend,” Pascale Sardé, the chemist’s wife, confided in her one day, “a man all alone—well, practically alone—in that house, with all those books…”
Simone would usually smile when faced with such words of wisdom, but she never breathed a word. As her late husband had once said, it wasn’t worth wasting your time trying to change the world; it was enough not to let the world change you.
She was also learning to respect Lazarus’s complex demands concerning his correspondence. His personal letters had to be opened one day after they arrived and answered promptly. Commercial or official mail had to be opened the day it arrived, but should only be replied to one week later. And he was adamant that any mail sent from someone named Daniel Hoffmann in Berlin should be handed to him in person, and never, under any circumstances, be opened by her. The reason behind all of this was none of her business, Simone concluded. She liked living in Blue Bay, and it seemed a fairly healthy place in which to bring up her children. The matter of which day letters should be opened on was something she felt gloriously indifferent about.
For his part, Dorian discovered that even his semi-professional dedication to mapmaking still allowed him time to make a few friends among the village boys. None of them seemed to care that he was a newcomer, or whether or not he was a good swimmer (he wasn’t, but his new friends made sure he learned how to stay afloat). He also learned that pétanque was a game only those on their way to retirement played and that running after girls was the domain of petulant fifteen-year-olds at the mercy of hormonal fevers that preyed on both their complexion and their common sense. At his age, apparently, all you were supposed to do was ride around on your bicycle, daydream, and watch the world go by, waiting for the moment when the world would start watching you. And on Sunday afternoons, a visit to the cinema. That is how Dorian discovered a new and unspeakable love, next to which mapmaking and the study of moth-eaten parchments paled in comparison: Greta Garbo. A divine creature whose very name was enough to make him lose his appetite, despite the fact that she was basically an old woman, just past thirty.
While Dorian debated whether his fascination with such an old woman meant there was something seriously wrong with him, it was Irene who bore the full brunt of Hannah’s attentions. A list of single, desirable young men was at the top of Hannah’s agenda. Her fear was that if after two weeks in the village Irene didn’t begin to flirt, even halfheartedly, with at least one of them, the boys would think she was strange. Hannah was the first to admit that in terms of physical appeal the list of candidates passed the test reasonably well, but when it came to brains they were barely functional. Even so, Irene was never short of admirers, which provoked a healthy envy in her friend.
“If I were as popular as you, I’d be making the most of it!” Hannah would say.
Glancing at the pack of boys milling around nearby, Irene smiled timidly.
“I’m not sure I feel like it…. They seem a bit foolish….”
“Foolish?” Hannah exploded, annoyed at such a wasted opportunity. “If you want clever conversation, pick up a book!”
“I’ll think about that,” Irene said, laughing.
Excerpted from The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Copyright © 2013 by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 1, 2013
3.5 stars. Given that Zafon, the author of one of my favorite books, Shadow of the Wind, wrote this, I read it with much anticipation. I've read Shadow, Prisoner of Heaven, The Angel's Game - all well-written, fantastic novels - so my hopes were high. After reading it, I was forced to wonder whether he actually wrote it with the same "gusto" as the others. He used cliches, his analogies and similes were a bit "lazy" and the novel did not show the brilliant writing I came to appreciate and be in awe of in his other works. However, the novel is still a good read with a decent story. He mentions Andreas Corelli in it, so I was further intrigued. Zafon is still, and always will be, one of my favorite authors.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 2, 2013
The story is a classic one for this writer. But I don't want to do a spoiler review. This writer does suspense, horror, and mystery all in one. I really hope you read this book because it is a very intriguing story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 26, 2011
I've read all this author's books & can't wait for this one. I'd like to have the Spanish version for Christmas presents for my children who were brought up in Mexico. They prefer to read Ruiz Zafon's books in the language they were written in. Is the Spanish version already out or will the Spanish and English books be released at the same time?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.