These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

these dividing walls

I absolutely loved the sound of this novel when I first came across it on Bookbridgr.  It’s premise of a small group of characters living within an apartment block reminded me of José Saramago’s Skylight which I absolutely loved.

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 a character driven novel, featuring a number of residents of “Number 37”.  Despite living in the same apartment block, many of the residents don’t know a great deal about each other (beyond gossip and casual observations), and their interactions are, for the most part, restricted to a polite nod as they pass each other in and around the building.

Proximity does not invite closeness.

The main characters, that is, the ones we see the most of, are:

  • Edward – a young Englishman, seeking to escape the grief of a personal tragedy, is staying in an attic room temporarily, the space loaned to him by his friend, Emilie
  • Frédérique – Emilie’s aunt, who has her own experience of grief
  • César – a man trying desperately to hide a secret from his wife, Chantal
  • Anaïs – a woman struggling with her role as a stay at home mum

There are several other characters, although for the me the story really centred around these.  I found all of the characters, major and minor, to be extremely well drawn.  There are no stereotypes here – just normal, everyday people getting on with their lives, each with their own cross(es) to bear, and it was so easy to get drawn into the day to day lives of the residents of Number 37.  And getting to see the ins and out of their day to day lives should satisfy even the nosiest of readers – I often felt like a fly on the wall, able to zip into and out of any room and apartment that I wanted to, listening in on private conversations which range from the intimate to the mundane.

When talking about Paris, in the UK at least, many people have an idea or vision of what is being discussed, and will think of sights such as the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and, of course, La Tour Eiffel.  This is not the Paris featured in the novel.  Number 37 is set in “an unfashionable suburb”, away from the main tourist trail on the left bank.  As far as I remember (and I’m willing to corrected on this point) I don’t believe that a specific address is ever mentioned.  It’s always “Number 37”.  I think that this is both clever and deliberate, and I took it to be a sign that the events occurring here could happen anywhere, in any city.  The political tension, the racism of some individuals in the novel and concerns over terrorism are things that any of us could, unfortunately, experience.

These Dividing Walls is an enchanting and beautifully written debut from Cooper, who is definitely one to watch.

These Dividing Walls was published on 4 May by Hodder & Stoughton.  Many thanks to Veronique Norton for providing a copy for review via Bookbridgr.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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