In these times of jingoistic hyper nationalism, literature which provides shrewd social commentary is more important than ever. However, as someone who loves literary fiction, often I find that books that are ‘timely’ eventually sacrifice their plot and character development in order to get their key message across. Very few books manage to walk the fine line between meticulous storytelling and a politically relevant message. Fran Cooper does both with aplomb in her exquisite debut, These Dividing Walls.
The story revolves around Number 37, a building in the Parisian suburbs, and its various residents. This building represents a microcosm of France and in fact, any society with diverse, disparate individuals co-existing. Fran astutely sketches out each of her characters making them extremely realistic with their flaws and redeeming qualities. The book begins with Edward coming to Paris to recover from his sister’s death and sort out his life. Other important characters include Anaïs, a hapless mother of three who is straining under the demands of motherhood and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Cesar is a disgruntled banker, who after being made redundant, blames young immigrants for the loss of his job ad quickly gets sucked into the rabbit hole of his misplaced hostility. Some characters are likeable enough and others act in deplorable ways but each of them is so lifelike that it is easy to empathise with them.
Fran artfully interweaves their stories and observes how despite living in the same building, they are completely oblivious to others’ hardships. They miss important details about each other in their fleeting interactions since each of them is too wrapped up in their own hang-ups and grief. I loved how fluently the writing melds the individual stories of the residents with the escalating political unrest in their city. The sense of foreboding and air of inevitability is noticeable very early on in the story which reminded me of one of my favourite books, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things which also used subtle foreshadowing and focused on the dual interconnectedness and seclusion that people living together in a building experience.
As the residents live their day to day life, there is rising political tension and the Far right is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, a Muslim family moving into the building exposes the hidden xenophobia and prejudices that some tenants harbour. In the story, various characters project their own shortcomings and frustration on the most vulnerable group – the immigrants. A terror attack in Notre Dame gives the Far right the perfect excuse to set ree their vitriol against Muslims and the situation finally comes to a head, with the residents of the building inadvertently getting embroiled in the ensuing chaos.
The Paris portrayed in the novel is a stark contrast is a welcome change to the postcard version of it we usually get in books featuring Champs-Élysées and stunning boulevards where every one’s dining on champagne and cheese. This Paris is pulsating melting pot with mundane lifestyles, great economic disparity and hate crime – characteristic of all cosmopolitan cities. The prose tantalisingly evokes Parisian sights and sounds while the incandescent writing greatly elevates the somewhat simple plot.
Throughout the narrative, Fran frequently sheds light on the discrimination against minorities in her understated way through allusions like when a character remarks that attacks on minorities don’t get much media coverage since that has less sensationalist appeal than when white people are the victims. One subplot in particular made me wonder how entitled racists and xenophobes so often use the ‘what about my rights?’ card to justify harassing and spewing hate towards a marginalised group of society.
There is a particularly revealing passage when nationalist elements start riots against Muslims by vandalising Muslim shops and then ‘just for good measure’ start a fire outside a synagogue and assault a homeless man. This reflects how such antagonism can never be contained, is not directed towards a specific target and sooner or later will manifest in uglier ways.
There are not many false notes in this impeccable debut. One slight niggle I had was there is a minor mystical element in Anais story at the which to me felt like a bit of a cop out as it hindered the natural progression of her story arc.
This is a very elegantly written book with nuanced narration which allows the story to unfurl at its own pace. The individual stories tackle profound themes like love, human fallibility, coming to terms with your grief. The ending could not be closer to reality, since while some characters find some resolution, a few toxic ones continue to wallow in their misery. These Dividing Walls is a resplendent debut which combines a gracefully multi-layered narrative with insightful social commentary.
These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.