These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Fran Cooper’s debut novel, These Dividing Walls, is a meditation on the way ordinary lives are impacted by racism, Islamophobia, terror attacks and the far right in contemporary Paris.

“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…”


These Dividing Walls takes the reader on a journey into the lives of the inhabitants of an apartment block in arrondissement Paris, drifting seamlessly from one character’s perspective to another. Meet among others, Edward and Frédérique, both stricken by grief; depressed and emaciated mother of three Anais and her absent husband Paul; Chantal and her lost and disillusioned husband César Vincent; Madame Marin, the gardienne who runs a hairdressing salon in the courtyard and slips out in the night; the hate ridden Isabelle Duval, and Josef, the vagrant who sleeps in the doorway opposite. Through this cast of quirky and troubled characters the various attitudes to be expected in any social mix, from tolerance through prejudice to extremism, are explored.

The writing is exquisite and discursive. The narrative meanders, rich with incidental details and acute observations, Cooper’s strength, her ability to enter into the souls of her characters. Frédérique seeks “a world beyond the bourgeois formalities cradled within these walls…everything that has suffocated her before in its intensity turned now a cushion against pain; scar tissue around her heart.”

The use of the present tense brings an immediacy to the story, focusing the mind of the reader on the characters in close proximity. Through it, Cooper, invites the reader to ponder the inane and banal aspects of prejudice.

These Dividing Walls is a slow read that contains few surprises. The portrayal of terror and reprisal bleeds into the narrative, growing ever larger, vying for centre stage, seeking to oust the much larger and more poignant story of grief. Contemporary fiction is difficult to write, for the risk is always that themes appear stuck on, worked into something already in existence. Cooper manages to achieve a good balance, using the weather – Paris endures a June heat wave –  to full and dramatic effect. Ultimately, it is the weather that binds this story and makes it work.

You can buy a copy of this book HERE

I would like to thank NetGalley and Hodder and Stoughton for my review copy.

Peace be upon us all

It was an ordinary day in September. Summer was nearing its end and a I was about a month into the first term of the new school year. The school day had ended and I walked in the staff room. A few colleagues had the telly on and they were glued to it. I went over to see what was so compelling viewing.

The camera was fixed on the Twin Towers. There was smoke and blast debris and people were screaming. I watched as the tower fell. It all happened in slow motion. Nothing made much sense.

The school where I taught was solid working class and white. I was a teacher of Religious Studies. I had four classes of Year 8s and the term topic was Islam. We’d been having a lot of fun with it. We’d studied the five pillars and my classroom was decorated with a frieze of Islamic-style art that the students had created for homework. We’d discussed the essence of the faith, as best we could understand it. We’d been having a fabulous time. There were a lot of points of difference but we collectively chose respect. We knew that none of us were about to answer the call to prayer, but we rather liked Zakat, the giving of alms.


That was 2001. The day the world cleaved. Looking back on events since, it’s little wonder theories abound as to who was behind it. Something so pivotal, so worldview shattering, so utterly incomprehensibly devastating and so intricately planned had to be the work of someone at least a little bit clever.

What anyone with eyes can plainly see is how the world has changed and that event triggered it. Bang! A whole system flip. Warmonger Bush went to war with Afghanistan and then Iraq off the back of it. Homeland security and the Patriot Act and the hellhole that was Guantanamo Bay. The war on terror began. The axis of evil was created. And Islamophobia became the order of the day. Never mind the devious and evil plotters who created 9/11. Pay attention to the way it was used, to the hysterical, nonsensical corrupt moral outrage that ensued.

Even a moderate politician like Former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence will tell you that the best way to control a population is to rule by fear. So when Waleed Aly admits to his own apprehension in the face of Sonia Kruger’s ‘ban Muslim immigration’ statement, it’s easy to see how successful the campaign has been.

The way to deal with terror attacks is through education and the fostering of right human relations. Not through the rhetoric of war. Fighting terrorism is a ludicrous stance to take. Since when did fire put out fire? Yes it’s appalling when a guy in a truck barrels into innocent people celebrating on a beach. But that guy, and others like him, are emerging out of the spoils of wars the west declared. They are emerging out of geopolitical battle lines. They are emerging out of the ideology promoted by western-backed Saudi Arabia in the form of Wahhabism. They are emerging out of a deep frustration with white supremacist America imposing its will and its values on the Middle East. We need to understand this bigger picture. We need to understand that the killings, the bombings, the devastation is happening every day not in France, or Britain or Australia, but over there in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen. We need to face up to the fact that we as citizens of western nations have blood on our hands too. I’m not a high school teacher any more, but if I was these are the things I would teach. I’d risk my career over it.

We can try to resist the fear. Choose not to make religion a reason not to be someone’s friend. We can realise that 1.6 billion believers are not a minority group. We can abandon our implicit white supremacist stance and start behaving like human beings with the hearts we were given.

Or we can head down the path we are on. It’s the path to fascism without a doubt. It’s also the path to World War III which was always going to be fought in the Middle East. Didn’t take a soothsayer to work that one out. Some, like Pope Francis, say it’s already begun. We’re just slow to recognise it. It’s this very failure to recognise the gravity of the situation, this lack of ability to rise up out of the fear soup we’re drowning in, that will ultimately be our downfall.