The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry book cover
The Library of Unrequited Love (2013), La Code 400 in the original French, and translated to English by Siân Reynolds, is a small book about loneliness and libraries. Arriving early one morning, the Geography librarian of a public library is surprised to find an interloper locked in the basement where she works. After a mild chastising, she offers the stranger a cup of coffee and begins to chat to her silent narratee, long-repressed thoughts tumbling from her mouth. Single and a long-servant of the library, it’s a rare opportunity to voice her opinion and she does so gladly, covering many topics, and in so doing, reveals her frustrations, loves, hopes, and anxieties. Underappreciated, she disdains many of the other librarians and the people who steer the library away from her ideal, but she retains a grudging affection for the library users, motley crew that they are. One in particular flames her interest: a researcher named Martin, who visits weekly to read in her basement. Having barely exchanged a dozen words, her attraction is muted and always from afar, resigned, it seems, to remain unrequited.

Burned once by love, the librarian now finds solace in the books she keeps and her affections are reserved for reading and authors long past, refusing to expose her heart to anyone who has the power to hurt her:
[M]en, no, that's all over. Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it's comforting. You're never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.
But, while she remains both fearful and desirous of human contact, through her often bitter laments, there is a well-reasoned love for libraries and for the people who use them, hidden beneath the often dismissive rhetoric she spouts. Indeed, the unrequited love of the title is not just for Martin but for all the odds and sods who she looks after – always without thanks – in her library.
“I’ve never got a word of thanks from Martin, my refugees, my little old men, my school dunces. Once they leave here, they forget about me. I’m stuck in my basement… And yet it all starts up again every day. I fall for it. The Homeric struggle. Every day, I go back into the arena.”
For, she loves culture and laments its fall within society, as well as the library’s ever-diminishing role. For her, the library is a means of opening culture to the masses, and gently helping them to elevate their own thinking and cultural awareness. But her observations are not limited to libraries and their users. Beneath the librarian’s bun, turns a mind sharp and analytical. A keen observer, she sees the smallest of human behaviours right up to the biggest of ideas, and how they all fit together. Indeed, her rambling narrative encompasses a diverse range of topics, including the Dewey Decimal system (and its flaws), snobbery (literary and otherwise), socialism, a library’s place in society, feminism, the French Revolution, and French Literature – and all before opening time!

But, for all the talking, the real topic of the monologue – hidden beneath every sentence – is loneliness. The librarian is far from the perfect advocate for reading, troubled as she is. Perhaps, one might reflect her own claim that to be a writer one must be in some way dysfunctional, back at readers. After all, to read is to choose wilfully to exclude the world, and transport oneself to a place of greater comfort. This loneliness – the deep, but unexceptional, sadness of the librarian’s life – is gently unfurled through the restrained prose, and one feels the isolation of a life spent quietly with books.

There is, however, scarcely a dull sentence in the book, and the librarian proves enlivening company for all the underlying pathos. The narratee – the only other character – is as much a stranger to the reader by the end of the book as they are at its opening pages, but the reader becomes the narratee themselves, listening and bending to the position of the librarian, whose story this truly is. Without chapters or paragraphs, the monologue is an incessant stream of consciousness, and runs smoothly, the narrator barely pausing for breath. It is frequently funny, often poignant, and there are innumerable passages which work as quotable snippets.

This is Sophie Divry’s debut, and it feels like an intimate and personal piece of writing, as many debuts do. The subtlety and simplicity of the novella is beautifully pitched. The Library of Unrequited Love will, perhaps, read best to a librarian who can more than sympathise with the narrator, but anyone who has spent their life amongst books will feel immediately in tune with the librarian’s voice, and more still those who feel the alienation of modern life.

Under 100 pages long, this is a book perfectly-pitched for the grumbling librarian in me. There's much more to it though, and would recommend it to any book lover as a refreshing and thoughtful read.

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