McDonnell takes us to Paris in the Belle Epoque era in this marriage of history and fiction. Piaf- ‘little sparrow’- is both cursed and blessed as she cannot forget anything. Her memories jostle in metaphorical boxes inside her head, ceaselessly demanding her attention, making her flutter and fidget in an attempt to subdue them, but also helping her out of the many tight spots she and her companions encounter in this compelling novel.
Luc, her twin is ill, being treated by a mysterious doctor who Piaf does not trust. Since the doctor’s arrival Paris has been possessed by ‘vanilla cream’ fogs and reports of missing children have begun to proliferate. Distressingly, her Maman is entirely in thrall to the doctor and even more distressingly, she, like the rest of the population, has no memory of the year which has just passed. Clearly something is profoundly wrong and when a man with a young girl chained to his arm tries to kidnap Piaf from her chestnut roaster she takes her story to Madame LeGrand, an old family friend. She, too, has lost a year from her memory-Piaf realises something sinister is afoot.
The narrative occupies two settings-the streets of Paris and the labyrinths beneath, created when the stone to build Paris was quarried and with its map mirroring the streets above. When Piaf falls through a sink hole in the fragile shell of rock she discovers a world of bones, of ghosts, of kidnapped children and, most satisfyingly of all, the evil doctor’s lair.
Piaf returns to the surface, liberates Luc and they return underground. They discover Bertie, woodcarver extraordinaire, captured and incarcerated by the doctor and the three children bravely battle to defeat the doctor’s evil plans in a whirlwind of activity deep in the labyrinth. They are forged together by loyalty, by filial love and by an indefatigable desire to restore Paris and its inhabitants to order and when they finally succeed it is a triumph of determination and of mental and emotional resilience over seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Chestnut Roaster brings the city of Paris to life. Set at the time of preparations for the World Fair it is a very satisfying blend of fact and fiction, shot through with magic realism, imbued with a sense of justice over wrongdoers. The beautifully realised illustrations are given a section at the end of the book in which readers are given a chance to explore and study them. There is a second explanatory section, ‘In Actual Fact’ which details the events in the book which really happened. A further delight is that the chapter headings are in both French and English and so young readers are introduced to French in the most accessible way.
This is a tremendous book on every level and would make an excellent class reader and a rich addition to library shelves.