As you may have noticed, I like to invent sub-genres, and it didn’t take me many chapters into The Travels of Daniel Ascher to figure out that this newly-translated French novel is part of the subgenre I like to call “Books in Which Fictional Children’s Books Are Used as Plot Devices and/or to Give Symbolic Weight to the Protagonist’s Relationship with the Past.” As such, it joins Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (which makes some token attempts to fictionalize its protagonist, who is clearly based on the boy who provided the inspiration for Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh books), and even Gone Girl, with all the ‘Amazing Amy’ nonsense.
The protagonist of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is Hélène, an archaeology graduate student in Paris. Daniel Ascher (known to most, including Hélène, as Daniel Roche) is her great-uncle. In Hélène’s family, Daniel is known for leaving town abruptly for journeys all over the world. Each time, he returns having written a children’s book about the place he visited. His books are published under the pseudonym H.R. Sanders. Growing up, Hélène never enjoyed her great-uncle’s books, although her brother did. She begins reading them as an adult when she discovers that so many of her grad school classmates remember these books as childhood favorites. She even begins dating a classmate named Guillaume, with whom she likely never would have become close if they had not had the novels of H.R. Sanders to talk about.
Soon Hélène, who is renting a room in a building owned by her great-uncle Daniel, starts noticing some mysterious things going on in her family and in her uncle’s building. Various family members are displaying atypical emotions about Daniel, and by coincidence Hélène discovers that another couple in the building has an entire box full of pictures of Daniel and his siblings as young children. An address keeps surfacing, on the rue d’Odessa in Paris – but when she goes to that street, she finds that there is no building with that address. She ends up traveling to New York to learn more about her uncle Daniel and his mysterious life.
I found the first half of the novel a little baffling. It was a quick, easy read but not at all interesting. I kept looking the book up on Amazon, expecting to find some hidden notation stating that the book is meant for children. I found myself comparing it to The Little Prince – because both novels share the same otherworldliness. They both feel like parables more than novels – although the events in The Travels of Daniel Ascher are plausible within the known world while those in The Little Prince are not. But the first half of this novel is full of ordinary images – the young Daniel as the only one in a certain photograph that is not dressed up, for example – and I couldn’t persuade myself to care much about them.
The ending, on the other hand, charmed me. It was clear to me from early on that this novel was going to venture into the Holocaust and the Occupation. As Hélène continues to investigate the mysteries surrounding Daniel, she learns that as a young boy he was taught to retouch photos and that he sometimes still dabbles in the art of altering documents. In particular, she discovers that the postmarks on the postcards Daniel sends are forged. A mysterious friend of Daniel’s gives Hélène a key to Daniel’s house, and she discovers that underneath Daniel’s “real” house is another one, which is set up to look exactly like the house he grew up in before his parents and sister were killed by the Nazis (yep, that’s a spoiler. Not sorry). I liked this component of the novel quite a lot and immediately started plotting to find a way to build a house for myself that has another house below it that no one would ever have to know about. This ending (and there are other components to it, by the way) made me like the book much more than I did when I was reading the first half.
This is going to sound like a strange thing to say about a book I’m not too enthusiastic about, but I actually wish this book were longer. The children’s books that Daniel wrote – and that Hélène is contemplating for the first time as a young adult – do factor into the plot and themes of the novel, but they are summarized in only a few sentences each. The author more or less has to TELL us how the books are connected to Daniel’s Holocaust experiences. If the book were longer, and if the children’s books were presented slowly over the course of the novel so the reader could start to see the connections for herself, this would be a stronger novel.
I’m not wild about this book – but it makes for a quick read and has a solid ending.