Review

Chicken soup for the armchair traveller's soul

Christine Feret-Fleury’s (above) The Girl Who Reads On The Metro is filled with vignettes of everyday life.
Christine Feret-Fleury’s (above) The Girl Who Reads On The Metro is filled with vignettes of everyday life.PHOTOS: PH. MATSAS-DENOEL, MANTLE

FICTION

THE GIRL WHO READS ON THE METRO

By Christine Feret-Fleury, translated by Ros Schwartz

Pan Macmillan/Hardcover/ 200 pages/$24.95/ Available at bit.ly/Metro_CFF

3.5 stars

"Paradise" comes from a Persian word, pairidaeza, which means "garden" or "enclosure".

So observes Soliman, the mysterious owner of a Parisian bookshop in Christine Feret-Fleury's The Girl Who Reads On The Metro.

Feret-Fleury's novel is chicken soup for the armchair traveller's soul - at once a paean to the beauty of a cloistered life and a nudge to step out the door and live a little.

At the heart of the story is Juliette, a young property agent who lives vicariously through books.

One day, she enters Soliman's shop, a quaint room filled with mountainous stacks of mint-scented books. She falls under its spell and decides to work for him.

Like his other "passeurs", her job is to observe strangers in the city before allocating books to them.

"Passeur" is a freighted term, a nod to the people who helped others escape during World War II.

As she leaves her old life behind, Juliette's encounters with Iran-born Soliman and his family lead her down some unexpected paths.

But even then, things don't ever go off the rails. As Juliette remarks: "The tiniest departure from routine, if you were open to it, was indeed an adventure."

In Ros Schwartz's sensitive translation from the French, Feret-Fleury's book has the air of a reverie, one prone to certain flights of fancy - Juliette wonders if Soliman is a terrorist - but these are checked by the walls of the narrator's self-consciousness.

The book is filled with delicious vignettes of everyday life, seen through the lens of someone who pores over the smallest of details - the sky reflected in a glazed door; a spider whirling down a shower drain - as though they were in a book just an arm's length away.

There is something to be said for the author's masterful handle on tone and register, blending the ingredients of the book in a way which has all the warm comforts of a cup of spiced tea - and just the right amount of kick.

The last few chapters border on the improbable, but by then we are sufficiently spellbound to go along with the conceit, as well as such platitudes as "it is inside you that all these books must find their place".

Feret-Fleury's novel is for anyone who loves books and gets a certain frisson from caressing the tomes' spines and sniffing their pages.

Read this book on the MRT or somewhere quieter where you can listen to the sentences.

Chances are that when you reach the final full stop, you will be moved to pass your copy to someone else.

If you like this, read: The Little Paris Bookshop ($18.95, Little, Brown, 2013, available at bit.ly/Little_Paris_Bookshop), Nina George's best-selling novel about a man on a barge who prescribes books to his customers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2020, with the headline 'Chicken soup for the armchair traveller's soul'. Print Edition | Subscribe