vivid | emotional | compelling
what it says on the cover …
In this evocative tale from the bestselling author of The Dressmaker’s Gift, a strange new city offers a young girl hope. Can it also offer a lost soul a second chance?
Morocco, 1941. With France having fallen to Nazi occupation, twelve-year-old Josie has fled with her family to Casablanca, where they await safe passage to America. Life here is as intense as the sun, every sight, smell and sound overwhelming to the senses in a city filled with extraordinary characters. It’s a world away from the trouble back home—and Josie loves it.
Seventy years later, another new arrival in the intoxicating port city, Zoe, is struggling—with her marriage, her baby daughter and her new life as an expat in an unfamiliar place. But when she discovers a small wooden box and a diary from the 1940s beneath the floorboards of her daughter’s bedroom, Zoe enters the inner world of young Josie, who once looked out on the same view of the Atlantic Ocean, but who knew a very different Casablanca.
It’s not long before Zoe begins to see her adopted city through Josie’s eyes. But can a new perspective help her turn tragedy into hope, and find the comfort she needs to heal her broken heart?
PUBLISHED: 21st September 2021
SHELF: Historical Fiction
AUTHOR: Fiona Valpy
PUBLISHER: Amazon Publishing UK
FORMATS: Paperback | Kindle | AudioBook
Thank you to #AmazonPublishingUK and #NetGalley for this advance-proof kindle copy of #TheStorytellerofCasablanca by @FionaValpy
my review …
The Storyteller of Casablanca is pitched as a historical fiction novel, although its dual timeline narrative creates a structure whereby two characters both have significant stories to tell: Josie in 1941-2, and Zoe in 2010. I’m used to seeing this tandem storytelling format in historical fiction novels – it’s something I enjoy a lot as the modern-day character often helps to breathe life into the historical character whose voice we’re usually hearing from posthumously.
Zoe’s narrative opens the book, setting the scene for her arrival in Casablanca with her husband Tom, carrying the baggage of a marriage on the rocks. Quite quickly, the author makes it clear that it’s not just the marriage that’s troubling Zoe, that there’s something much deeper and significantly more damaging, although the truth of this won’t be revealed until the very final chapters of the book. Through Zoe’s eyes we experience the overwhelming clamour and heat of her new home city – quite a change from her Bristol roots. Her disorientation and loneliness are palpable, as is a deep-seated fragility. It takes time for Zoe to start feeling comfortable enough to venture out in the city, but when she does, her descriptions bring the unique scenery to life for the reader absolutely beautifully.
By way of alternating chapters, we start to hear from twelve-year-old Josie through her diary, found under the floorboards by Zoe. Written in 1941 and 1942, her story portrays an aspect of World War II that I kew very little about – the escape of Jewish refugees from occupied France to Morocco. Josie’s voice brings a naive simplicity to her account of an exiled life. She’s a very observant and bright girl (perhaps a little too much so to be completely credible as the voice of a twelve year old) so she understands the gravity of the situation, the threat posed by the Gestapo prowling Casablanca’s streets, and the precarious position her family are in whilst they await their passage to America.
When I first started reading The Storyteller of Casablanca, I found myself enjoying Zoe’s chapters the most – they seemed the most relatable and depicted the bustling vibrancy of modern Casablanca – a city that’s been on my travel wish list purely to follow in the footsteps of my Dad when he was out there in 1967 (his eyes lit up every time he spoke about that trip). As the book progressed, however, I became increasingly drawn in to Josie’s story which was rapidly becoming the more powerful and interesting of the two. The urgency facing her family’s escape was palpable, although she was conflicted by the wonderful friendship that was developing with local girl, Nina.
For a large part of the book, Zoe’s character feels a little superfluous – although we clearly need her to give voice to Josie’s diary entries. I struggled to engage with her role, and started to feel niggled by the lack of variety in her day which carried through into a lack of oomph to her story. However, the author does eventually salvage her character, using her to draw attention to the present day migrant and refugee crisis. When Zoe starts volunteering at the local centre for refugees, the women and children seeking solace there breathe new life into Zoe’s chapters. Their stories are conveyed with devastating clarity; it was impossible not to be deeply moved by their accounts.
The Storyteller of Casablanca is packed with intoxicating and vivid scenery which I loved exploring – the fierce heat, the disorienting alleys of the medina, the bustle of the markets, and the welcome reprieve of the ocean transcends both timelines, whilst the very real Gestapo danger in Josie’s world, becomes the implied discomfort of beggars and street-hawkers of Zoe’s experiences. Josie’s world was, for me, the most engaging of the two, boasting the richest breadth of intrigue, characters, food, and settings.
It’s in the latter chapters of The Storyteller of Casablanca where the two plots really compete for your attention. The fate of Josie’s family which had looked so hopeful, before being so horrifically dashed, is suddenly silenced when her diary stops without warning, on the eve of her family’s escape on board the Esperanza … raising the very pertinent question of how the precious diary came to be left behind. Having to confront the truth of what may have happened to Josie forces Zoe to confront the incredibly heart-breaking truth that she’s been keeping secret from the readers for so long.
The Storyteller of Casablanca is a story of hope, friendship, and community, that weaves the mystical beliefs of an ancient country elegantly into a story of human migration and persecution that’s sadly as relevant today as it’s ever been. It’s a culturally enlightening and richly diverse premise with so many fascinating threads, placing real life historical characters of the resistance movement seamlessly into a story that shimmers with old tribal customs and cultural traditions. In many ways, I wish the cinematic intensity of the book’s latter chapters had been present for a far greater proportion of the story … but perhaps I’m just being a bit greedy? Speaking of greedy, the author has included the recipe for the Ghoribas so loved by Josie … they’re the most delicious-sounding cookies made with honey and orange zest, and I can’t wait to try making a batch.
Fiona Valpy spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007. She and her family renovated an old, rambling farmhouse in the Bordeaux winelands, during which time she developed new-found skills in cement-mixing, interior decorating and wine-tasting.
All of these inspirations, along with a love for the place, the people and their history, have found their way into the books she’s written, which have been translated into German, Norwegian, Czech, Slovenian and Turkish.
Fiona now lives in Scotland, but enjoys regular visits to France in search of the sun.