One Parisian summer
A building of separate lives
All that divides them will soon collapse…
In a forgotten corner of Paris stands a building.
Within its walls, people talk and kiss, laugh and cry; some are glad to sit alone, while others wish they did not. A woman with silver-blonde hair opens her bookshop downstairs, an old man feeds the sparrows on his windowsill, and a young mother wills the morning to hold itself at bay. Though each of their walls touches someone else’s, the neighbours they pass in the courtyard remain strangers.
Into this courtyard arrives Edward. Still bearing the sweat of a channel crossing, he takes his place in an attic room to wait out his grief.
But in distant corners of the city, as Paris is pulled taut with summer heat, there are those who meet with a darker purpose. As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…
These Dividing Walls is the debut novel from Fran Cooper. The story follows the inter-woven stories of the residents of Number 37, on a street in the suburbs of Paris.
What’s The Story?
Edward arrives at number 37 a grieving, lost Englishman. In an attempt to get past the sudden death of his sister, a friend has loaned him use of her apartment in Paris. As he settles into life in the apartment block, he comes to meet many other residents, each dealing with their own personal issues and hiding their own secrets.
I found this book very refreshing in that it portrays the good, the bad, and the ugly of Parisian society (and indeed society the world over). When you pick up a book set in Paris; you instinctively expect shiny arrondissements, la rive gauche, sophisticated and put-together protagonists and a rosy sheen on the French capital. What the reader actually gets in These Dividing Walls is a presentation of the normal, everyday Parisians on the outskirts of the city; away from the dazzling lights of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysées.
Between them, the residents of Number 37 represent a cross-section of the sentiments, struggles and everyday trials of husbands and wives, parents and children. There are some very likeable characters, like Frédérique, the aunt of Edward’s apartment-owning friend who lives in a stunning and spacious ground floor home in the same building; working every so often in her art book shop. She brings Edward out of his solitude, recognising in him the same loss she feels in her own soul; and together they help each other to heal. In young mum Anaïs, Cooper sensitively but accurately depicts the overwhelming sea of emotions that accompanies postnatal depression; as she struggles through a life with three small children, a shell of her former self.
The underlying theme which runs throughout the book, affecting all of the characters; is that of xenophobia in an age of increased immigration, and the way this affects lives. An air of fear and anger sits over the Paris of These Dividing Walls, fuelled and exploited by far-right dissidents; denied and ignored by the richer arrondissements; and we see the characters deal with this situation in different ways. Some of the residents, who have arrived bitter and twisted into their older age; ooze spite and venom in the face of that which is different to them, others beat them down with open-minded acceptance that yes; bad things happen, but no; the actions of the few do not represent the beliefs of the many.
The rumbling undercurrent of rebellion comes to a head at the end of the book, when all the residents find themselves drawn in some way into the events taking over the city.
There is no neat wrap-up at the end of These Dividing Walls, which is another point I very much liked about this book. The final message is that, through grief, betrayal, terror; life continues forward – for the residents, as well as for us.
These Dividing Walls is a fantastic and contemporary debut from Fran Cooper, due for publication on 4th May.
With thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC.