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Sophie Divry: Accomplished debut

Long beloved on the Continent, the novella has never been as fashionable on our side of the Channel. But in the battle between the electronic and the printed page, it may just turn out to be print's secret weapon. Real books can no longer have brains without beauty — it is imperative, now more than ever, that they be covetable physical objects. They must have clever, alluring covers; luxuriant paper; be richly, pleasingly tactile. And it's hard to beat a novella — a little slip of a book — as a covetable object. They fit perfectly into an inside jacket pocket; are easily concealed, when necessary, within the programme notes if one finds oneself at a particularly tedious school play. Unlike the novel, which mirrors life in all its messiness and meanderings, the long short story can aspire to perfection — to display a single, crystalline idea like a gem in velvet. And so what a pleasure it is to discover not one but two lovely European monologues, each around 100 pages, each concerned both with submission to order, and rebellion from it.

In Sophie Divry's accomplished debut, The Library of Unrequited Love, an unnamed librarian finds a reader asleep between aisles and, in between admonishing him and putting him to work reshelving with her, she begins to rail against various injustices perpetrated within the world of her provincial library and beyond it. There are no true readers any more, only those who come to enjoy the central heating or borrow DVDs; even visitors who might want something worthwhile rarely come to her, relegated as she is to the geography section in the basement. But books, she asserts, are culture's only hope. "Books were what saved me after Arthur," she confides, useless Arthur for whom she gave up Paris many years before, and who subsequently left her for an engineer at the nearby nuclear plant. 

But this is not a paean to the solace of fiction, for books here are both respite and tyranny. The unnamed librarian goes quietly mad, lost amid the soothing orderliness of the Dewey decimal system. Whatever she might claim, it's evident that even her most beloved writers offer her no consolation, even Guy de Maupassant, who "must have had terrific biceps and been fantastically intelligent". Books cannot touch the sides of her vast, kaleidoscopic loneliness. All she truly desires is a student named Martin, who has a nice neck and is entirely unaware of her existence. Or failing that, a man like Robespierre. "Yeah, yeah, I know, don't tell me, the guillotine, the Terror etc. Oh, stop, it really annoys me . . . They weren't going to get anywhere by sitting around being nice, were they?" Her favourite shelfmark is 944.75, the history of the French Revolution, and though she feels oppressed and neglected within the rigorous hierarchy of the library, we sense, in her mounting outrage, that she might finally stage her own uprising.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke also has rebellion at its core. A mother has cleaned and prepared four kilos of mussels, and now sits in the kitchen with her teenage daughter and son, waiting for her husband to come home from work. It is her daughter who explains that "mussels were my father's favourite food, although not ours," and it's not long before we understand that what might at first resemble an act of love — "she had to scrape, scrub, brush and rinse several times because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth"  — is really an act of survival. The husband is controlling and abusive, and as the book opens, his family's only ambition is to avoid going headfirst through the bullseye glass of the wall unit when he beats them. 

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