No Regrets: Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke

2nd Apr 2012


Piaf’s life – from her mythical street urchin beginnings in an impossibly romantic wartime Paris, to her status as a national icon – has so much built-in drama that elaboration is unnecessary.

Burke writes in her opening sentence that ‘Edith Piaf’s life began like a latter-day version of Les Misérables’. Born in a tight-knit slum on the outskirts of Paris, she was abandoned as an infant by her singing mother, and alternately raised on the road, busking for a living with her contortionist father, or by a community of nurturing prostitutes in her grandparents’ brothel.

She was raised by Paris itself, not only because so much of her early years were spent on its seedier streets, but because the city was an epic, central character in the story of her life, and in Burke’s re-telling of it.

In an effort to escape or control her tumultuous early life, Piaf took to the streets to sing; not only to busk for much-needed money, but because singing was the one consistent, driving love of her life.

In fairytale fashion, she moved from the worst street corners to progressively better neighbourhoods, until she was scooped up to perform in Montmarte nightclubs, and temporarily drawn into the dark glamour of the mafia scene.

Piaf moved to better venues in Paris, then France, and around the world, eventually becoming an international superstar and an icon for her nation.

Piaf’s life had little in it that was consistent – other than her music. Friends, family and lovers came and went, sometimes tragically, and her incredible rise to fame and fortune left her vulnerable to the risks of that lifestyle: in her case, exploitation by those around her, and addiction.

But singing drove Piaf forward through war, deaths, betrayals and illness; it was the one thing that kept her alive, even when her strenuous performances were almost killing her. She was consumed when she sang, and that consumed her audiences, inspiring a lingering legacy.

Burke gives loving attention to Piaf’s music – more so than any of the scandalous, spectacular moments from the singer’s private life – from heartfelt street-corner performances to that intimate, goosebumpy moment when she first belted out ‘Non, je ne regrette rien.’

No Regrets is a well-rounded, admiring but mostly unbiased portrait of a fascinating woman and an immense talent. Published last month by Bloomsbury, you can buy it in paperback for £6.49, or as an e-book for £6.86.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Anyone prepared to listen to ‘Non je ne regrette rien’ on repeat for weeks. I dare you not to.

Other recommended reading: The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, for another rags-to-riches showbiz tale; or Dickens for more plucky, talented children on the mean streets.

Amanda O’Boyle