Reviewed by E. B. Heath
A building, the people who live in it, a society anxious about immigration and unemployment, and the over arching summer heat of Paris. Such are the elements of Fran Cooper’s first novel, These Dividing Walls, successfully fusing character study and commentary on current social problems in Europe.
Fran Cooper seems well placed to write of Paris as she lived there for three years writing a PhD, before that reading English at Cambridge, and Art History at The Courtauld Institute of Art in the heart of London. She now works in a curatorial department of a museum in London. These credentials suggest that the reader is in capable hands, and they are. Moreover, Fran Cooper has an elegant prose style that makes this novel a most enjoyable read.
The old building, number thirty-seven, stands in an unfashionable corner of Paris.
… always a little behind the times, a little outside its time, … on a street with forgotten flowers in its name …
The building is a mixture of apartments and attic studios; it is like an old character as much as the setting for the novel. Its history hangs around the inhabitants as invisible scenery. Some have been there so long that they seem woven into the fabric; one has her childhood memories locked into it, and others are newly arrived, not yet attuned to its charm. A collage of characters in separate spaces, divided by secrets, grief and loss, rage and madness. Some meet and love, others hide and hate. There is Anaïs, a young mother, like others, struggling with the loss of happier, easier, independent days and with three young children; César, a bitter banker recently made redundant, who has become embroiled in something beyond his comprehension and comfort; the nocturnal hairdresser; the mysterious tenant only Anais sees.
The lives of Cooper’s characters are subtly nuanced as they react to personal problems and complex societal issues. The heat is stretching over Paris, pressing down, invading spaces, and eroding personal and communal senses. It is into this scene that Edward, young and lost in grief, arrives from England. Invited, by his friend Emilie, to stay in her aunt’s attic studio, where charming Aunt Frédérique, who intermittently runs a bookshop, invites him to tea.
She asks him about his life
Now it is his turn to obfuscate, to look beyond the deep pile of the sofa and the piles of books to see his own ghosts taking shape.
A young Muslim couple, soon to have a baby, leases an empty apartment. A meeting is held to discuss this ‘problem’. Some are vehemently opposed, others outraged by small-minded attitudes. Opinions are sought from individual members.
Absolutely fine by me. There are plenty of annoying people in this building already, and it’s got nothing to do with their religion.
Edward roams Paris and meets Charlotte and her friends, who are discussing how they might oppose political right wing groups.
Amorphous groups sitting hunched outside cafés, immersed in clouds of cigarette smoke and liberal outrage.
There is a violent riot in Paris; the residents of number thirty-seven pull together to protect an injured friend. Closer connections are attempted between people who have only been acquaintances for many years.
Proximity does not invite closeness, and all the years of polite bonjours and waving at each other across the courtyard have really served to demarcate their own space, not invite the other in. It crowds around them now; the weight of friendship that might have been.
The narrative has twists that surprise, but the main effect is to evoke compassion and understanding for its cast of characters. Cooper elegantly illustrates personality, life experience and social position of each character in a multiplicity of nuances, fusing individual lives to broader social issues. The political is no longer abstract. Loss and grief; losing independence, a job, a close relative, is potently personal. But, as Frédérique says to Edward, Paris should be about joy, and it is there to find. It can be found in broken lives.
This novel is well written; it is a pleasure to read. Locating a copy and looking out for Fran Cooper’s future work are both highly recommended.
By Fran Cooper
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia