These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper takes a look at the occupants of a Parisian apartment block to reveal secrets about them and the city.
What’s it about?
Here is the blurb from the publisher:
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…
What’s good about it?
Oh, where to start…
Firstly, this book oozes with Frenchness. Since I visited Paris at New Year, I’ve craved a book that would take me back to those exquisite French streets and Parisian bistros. I thought I found it with Happy People Read and Drink Coffee but it was not to be. These Dividing Walls delivered. It’s not a romanticised version of Paris nor a tourist map of iconic locations. It’s authentic and real; a Paris of the 21st century and one clearly informed by Fran Cooper’s years living in the City of Lights. And, there’s a bookshop. What more could I ask?
Cooper’s writing is exceptional. It’s thoughtful without being pretentious; delicate without being overly flowery. It has a gentle profundity that seamlessly stitches the lives of the characters with the fate of their city. It’s a beautifully crafted novel.
The novel is essentially a character study of each of the occupants of Number 37. Their lives are outwardly stable and fulfilling but, as Cooper subtly reveals, they each face their own battles and challenges behind closed doors. Their struggles are realistic and genuine, and readers will recognise the issues these characters face.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot but the book does feature a terrorist attack in Paris in the vein of those the city has experienced in the last few years. Cooper handles it with sensitive care to explore the impact of the atrocities on Paris itself, its citizens and the civic workers who regularly rehabilitate the city after each attack. She also looks at the ways in which this type of attack affects relations between communities, with Number 37 acting as a microcosm for Paris’ multi-cultural society where people from different backgrounds, races and religions co-exist.
This narrative was all the more profound for me as the Manchester attacks occurred while I was reading. Cooper’s fictional atrocity mirrored those I was viewing on my newsfeed, and her messages about compassion, community and resilience seemed all the more important.
What’s not so good about it?
I don’t have any constructive criticism of this novel at all.
Readers who have been affected by terrorism or are sensitive to reading about attacks similar to those seen in Manchester and Paris might wish to avoid the book – although, I should emphasise again, that Cooper treats the subject very delicately and there is no gratuity in the book.
These Dividing Walls is a contemporary novel about how our communities come together in the face of adversity. Humanity is at its core and you’ll reach out to your neighbours after reading it.