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Fiction set in Paris (a story very much of our time…)

20th December 2017

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper, fiction set in Paris.

Fiction set in ParisEdward, struggling to come to terms with the untimely death of his sister, is offered the use of a tiny studio apartment in Paris by his university friend, Emilie. It seems an ideal solution, allowing him to escape into the anonymity of a big city and he spends his time crashing out in exhaustion in the tiny bedroom of the apartment, or else meandering around the Parisian bars trying out his schoolboy French.

Number 37, in the Parisian suburbs, represents a microcosm of France and the residents are a very mixed bunch, with their own individual preoccupations and concerns. There is the waiflike Anais, struggling to care for three small children while her husband, Paul, spends all his time at Bible study groups. Monsieur and Madame Marin, residing on the ground floor, lead increasingly separate lives, he attending to the cleaning of the bins while his wife decks herself out in her finery and heads out for a night on the tiles. Upstairs, Cesar and Chantal Vincent look like the perfect couple but Cesar is hiding a shameful secret; he has lost his job in banking, and hasn’t the courage to tell Chantal. Instead, each day, he takes the metro to a remote area of the city and whiles away the time in a café, where he begins to be drawn into dangerous company. Then into this mix a new pair of residents arrive, who happen to be Muslim.

Cooper is very skilful in her creation of these disparate characters – they’re utterly believable and an astute combination of flaws and admirable qualities. But the real achievement in this novel is the way she blends the individual stories with the gradually mounting political unrest in the city for this is a book very much of our time and the reader is acutely aware of the growing sense of foreboding as the far right gains momentum. There are scenes that provide no-holds-barred details of violence but Cooper counterbalances this with some real tenderness and some delightfully humorous descriptions. When Edward is invited to have a cup of tea with Fréderique, Emilie’s aunt, he finds himself seated in a very grand salon and, despite his efforts to be presentable (putting on his least crumpled T-shirt) he feels that he ought, at least, to have worn a proper shirt and muses, “This room has the air of one that expects buttons.”

The Paris described in this slim debut novel is not the one the tourist usually sees but it is, in many ways, a welcome change and offers the reader a glimpse into the true nature of the city in today’s turbulent times. These Dividing Walls certainly makes the reader ponder about the nature of prejudice and the hyper nationalism that seems to abound today. It is not, however, a depressing read as it offers hope for improvement. Edward, alone amongst these characters, manages to break through the dividing walls and make a connection with someone else and, through this, he begins the process of healing.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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