Archive | October, 2016

Van has finished reading… These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

19 Oct

There’s a treat coming your way in the shape of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. In her own introduction, Fran says that she wanted to write about the real Paris rather than the image so many of us hold. I’ve never been to Paris but, having lived abroad for a time I can appreciate the distinction. I can also say that the Paris Fran Cooper shows us feels entirely real to me. It’s as much a character as the people who inhabit these pages, not dressed in her finery (or at least not always) but quotidian and vivid, and wholeheartedly laissez-faire.

The Walls of the book’s title are those that separate the inhabitants of number 37, a property made of two buildings – one a little (but only a little) more sheeshy than the other. There’s not much that escapes the attention of these proximate neighbours, though there’s plenty to distance them personally. And no matter how inquisitive they are there’s always a little secret to be kept here and there.

As to the characters themselves, they are superb. You will of course like some more than others – as you’re meant to. Perhaps you will, like me, give a little ‘yesss!’ when something happens that you’ve been hoping will happen to one or two of them (good or bad I won’t say but, if you’re wondering Fran & Emma, p183 of this proof!). Some may even feel like people you’ve actually met. I wish I could go through each one and tell you what it is I liked about them, what I hoped or feared – that’s how close I felt to them – but that would be to give the game away.

Although Fran Cooper tells us in her introduction that elements of These Dividing Walls started life as vignettes read at a Paris spoken-word club, don’t imagine this is one of those linked-short-story-collections-thinly-disguised-as-a-novel novels. This is a proper, layered start-to-finish novel with characters in action, evolving storylines and emotional journeys. There’s nothing unnecessary or incidental about events and interactions.

Any writer will be familiar with the exhortation to show-not-tell but in These Dividing Walls Fran Cooper gives us a perfect example of how an almost-telling style of writing can work. It verges on the conspiratorial, inviting the reader over to the wall with a glass in hand to listen in, points to certain things with a whispered ‘would you believe it?’ It makes a resident of us, and in so doing we’re invested in every drama, be they small or large.

Beyond the fact of the book’s location, beyond the premise that frames the characters we meet I think Fran Cooper has a lot to say about the way we live today, about the things that scare us and how we react to them. It makes the point, too, that events are never as far beyond us as we imagine, that the things happening around are often made up of ordinary people, and that people are never really all that ordinary.

Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. It transported me to a sultry Paris arrondissement in the summer. It made me laugh, it made me smile, it brought a lump to my throat more than once and even made me cheer quietly. I really hope you’ll give it the chance to do the same for you. Make a note in your diary for April 2017.


These Dividing Walls will be published by Hodder in April 2017 ISBN:9781473641532

You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My thanks particularly and especially to Emma Herdman at Hodder for knowing I’d love this book and allowing me to review it.

Van has finished reading… The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

17 Oct

Faber & FaberKate Hamer’s debut, The Girl In The Red Coat, is one of the few books I’ve read that impelled me to keep on reading. The very urgency of the story kept me turning the pages, whereas my preference is to slow it down when I’m really into a story, to really relish the experience. With it also making my top ten reads for last year, I was really excited to receive a copy of Kate Hamer’s new novel, The Doll Funeral (for which my especial thanks go to Sophie Portas at Faber). The Doll Funeral doesn’t disappoint.

Comparison between a debut and a follow-up novel is inevitable, though in the case of The Doll Funeral it’s almost unavoidable. Kate Hamer treads similar ground in that we have a young protagonist who is sensitive beyond the conventional. There are challenging family relationships and unusual alliances. The sense of place too could bear comparison, that heavy lean toward the fairy tale, the sense that nothing would be too surprising in the world her characters populate.

That said, it is a very different book. Although the story is fantastical at times its roots are fiercely realistic, not a pinch of Disney dust in sight. It’s all in the characters, and Ruby is great. Intrepid when she feels the need, scared and childlike when she should be, wistful, dreamy and needy when she’d dearly love to be otherwise. And as for Ruby’s awareness, it’s never overplayed, or played for a cheap shock. Her relationship with Shadow is as natural as any friendship at that age, breezing in and out of favour. She’s a protagonist to cheer for, and to fear for too. It’s a similar thing with Anna, the earlier of the two timelines in the book, though in her case it’s much more about the how and the why of events, rather than what actually happened. Of course that doesn’t make it any less heart-breaking. In both cases the people who hold sway over these two lives are complete, rounded individuals who are – in some cases – horribly believable.

I’m pleased to say I was able to take my time with the Doll Funeral. Rather than the driven, cranked-up tension of The Girl In The Red Coat that hits you on page one and leaves you feeling delightfully bereft at the end, The Doll Funeral gives us a subtler, creeping sort of tension. It’s not obvious but it’s always there, inexorable. The two timelines complement each other really well and although it’s quite apparent how they relate, Kate Hamer brings them together with subtlety, clueing you in to what she really wants to tell you without drawing big arrows that scream backstory. Everyone and everything is there for a reason and though the myriad possibilities might well have you guessing, nothing that actually happens feels out of place. It’s nicely done.


The Doll Funeral is a worthy successor to the furore that surrounded Kate Hamer’s debut, and definitely leaves me eager to see what she’ll come up with next.


The Doll Funeral will be published by Faber & Faber on 16th February 2017 ISBN: 9780571313853

You can find Kate Hamer on Twitter @kate_hamer

Van hasn’t finished reading…Philip Larkin: Letters To Monica (Edited by Anthony Thwaite)

4 Oct

You can imagine the premise for the novel: an emerging writer in the early stages of his career; the turmoil of an almost-wedding behind him and the lingering desire for the recipient of his correspondence stretching into the future. There are disasters ahead – some to keep them apart and at least one that will bring them together. As a novel it would be enticing and delicate, the prose gradually peeling away the layers to reveal the man inside, the character that carries the weight of this conflict, and how that carrying shapes him. It would be precise and whole and the change over time gratifying.

Except of course this isn’t fiction. This is real. This is life, and the trouble therein is that we don’t get to pick and choose whether or how those traits unfold. Yes, there is delicacy there. Yes, there is the central desire, and all the many things – self-inflicted or not – that stand in its way. But there’s the man at the centre too and the undeniable fact that he is often small and mean, that his circle of allowable humans is not wide, that the change he seems to be heading for over time is an entrenchment rather than a rising up to the tide of humanity. Then, there is nothing more real than that, and if fiction were genuinely that realistic we probably wouldn’t read it.

I’m making this book sound dreadful and it’s really not. It’s interesting in more than a merely voyeuristic way. Yes, if you’re a fan of Philip Larkin there are depths that will no doubt keep you tuned in. If you’re a writer, or interested in how writing works there are keen lessons on the way character shines out of prose. If you’re into recent history there’s a first-hand view of mid-twentieth century living – though it can only speak from the author’s unique perspective. And that character is very interesting too, a person who it’s sometimes hard to reconcile with the general idea of a poet. Is there a tendency to sweep away the unpleasant tang of his being ‘nice to a nigger’ because it’s Labour Day in the dubious belief that the language is a symptom of the period? But there’s all that downward-looking stuff about the Irish too. And there are his colleagues and contemporaries. Not a great many people get off lightly. We mention the word poet and so often imagine a deeply sensitive soul, and the alliteration leads us into soft-focus landscapes and middle-distance staring. Which is piffle. He’s a person like any other. He just happens to be a person who writes. This is very much the private face, these letters only ever intended for the recipient. How many of us would shudder to think of our emails or personal conversations being made public? All the tenderness, the delicacy, the fear and pain and hatred, they’re all there because a person felt them. And finding them in these letters makes those feelings real all over again.

If it were fiction this would’ve been a ‘Sorry, Philip.’ The fact of it is that I’ve found it hard to take so much of the character all at once. It’s too relentless, and knowing it not to be fiction kind of makes that harder to bear. But I really do want to be there to see if there’s a change in the end, whether there’s a wistful appreciation of inevitability, or a burning regret that time’s past and it’s too late in the day.

So, not a sorry, Philip, but a see you later.


Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica was published by Faber & Faber in 2010, ISBN:9780571239092