The Most Beautiful Book in the World, By Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt trs Alison Anderson

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The Independent Culture

Subtitled "Eight Novellas", this is actually a collection of longish short stories, around 20 pages apiece. Each story is based around a woman coping with some kind of crisis – adultery, a break-up, poverty, bereavement, senility – and each has an unexpectedly heart-warming end. Most are set in France in the present day; and they tend to start with a hook in the first line, pulling the reader in. ("To be honest, nothing would have happened if I hadn't changed my hairdresser.")

They are well-made stories, written with psychological insight and sympathy for the characters, with little in the way of literary flourishes, often covering decades, anatomising a life in a few pages. They put me in mind of the craft of Somerset Maugham.

The title does not sound easy to live up to – in fact it refers to the last story, where a group of women in a gulag smuggle out a hand-made book, written on cigarette papers, to their daughters. What's in it? You will have to read The Most Beautiful Book in the World to find out.