In 1942, Eva is forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children escaping to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva realises she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember their own identities.
When Rémy disappears and the resistance cell they work for is betrayed, the records they keep in The Book of Lost Names become even more crucial to remembering the truth…
When Eva sees a story in the magazine about a librarian in Berlin who is trying to unite books stolen during the Second World War to their rightful owners, she is stunned when she recognises one of the books in the photo and is determined to reclaim it. Despite protests from her overprotective son, Eva leaves her home in the United States and travels to Germany to meet the librarian at the Berlin Central and Regional Library, however the long journey gives her the opportunity to reminisce about her past.
In 1942, Eva and her mother narrowly avoided being detained by the authorities rounding up foreign born Jews in Paris, but her father isn’t so lucky and Eva can only watch from her hiding place as he is forcibly removed from their home. Although Eva was born in Paris, her parents are Polish immigrants and her father had the foresight to arrange for travel documents to be made for Eva in the event she needed to get out of Paris quickly. Realising their only chance is to try to get to Switzerland, Eva has to forge papers for her mother too.
Eva and her mother are advised to travel to a small mountain town in the Free Zone where they will get help to cross the border, however Eva’s forged documents attract interest from the local priest who is operating an underground resistance cell. Father Clement recognises Eva’s artistic talent and tries to persuade her to help them forge papers for the Jewish children they smuggle over the mountains into Switzerland. Eva is reluctant to get involved as her main focus is on finding a way to free her father but Father Clement introduces her to another forger, Rémy, who points out the considerable flaws in Eva’s documents and what she needs to do to improve them.
When Eva discovers her father is in Drancy, she stubbornly heads there with the papers she has already forged and is nearly caught on the train when a young Nazi officers asks her for more papers. Luckily, Rémy arrives to save the day and they travel to Drancy together where Eve learns her father has already been sent to Auschwitz. Distraught, Eva returns to Aurignon where she and Rémy work together to produce forged documents for children and other refugees. While Eva works tirelessly, she realises most of the children will be too young to remember their real names so she and Rémy devise a code based on the Fibonacci sequence which they use to record the names of the children in one the old books in the church where they work. Eva hopes to use the book to reunite the children with their real families after the war but things go badly wrong and the book is looted before she has a chance to retrieve it.
The Book of Lost Names was written to honour the network of forgers who were working in various small towns throughout France during the war who risked their lives to produce the false documents that would save the lives of hundreds of refugees. The inhabitants of these small towns were very much aware of what was happening on their doorstep but no one would betray the secret even though they knew the consequences of discovery. The story of the forgers is an intriguing one which may not be recognised by most, however it is highlighted admirably in this novel.
Eva and Rémy grow inevitably closer as they carry out their work but their budding romance is threatened by Rémy’s constant feelings of inadequacy when he realises Eva is so much more skilled at forging and he becomes drawn into even more dangerous work for the resistance. While Eva and Rémy are instantly attracted to each other, the romance itself is a bit of a slow burner as they are more often apart than not which is entirely credible. The arrival of an old friend of Eva’s who is now with the resistance also causes conflict especially since he is Jewish and deemed more suitable by Eva’s mother.
The town setting is convincing and I loved meeting the various townspeople who were directly involved in the network in some way. They are wary of Eva without being hostile when she first arrives but once Father Clement shows an interest in her talent, they hope she will stay and accept his offer. It is truly upsetting when things go bad for them.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, there were a couple of things that spoiled it for me and the biggest one was Eva’s poor decision making and everyone’s else’s blind willingness to go along with her. The prime example of this being her need to free her father from the detainment camp in Drancy with just a handful of fake papers and no clear plan on anything else. Once Eva makes her mind up, she refuses to listen to reason and puts other lives in danger but she never seems learn from her mistakes. Another peeve of mine was how easily Eva seems to be able to move around the country with no real sense of danger unless it was required by the plot.