Kaouther Adimi has based this historical novel on Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth), a famous Algerian bookstore, which was a publishing house and a lending library. In 1935 Edmond Charlot established the store in the city of Algiers, with the motto “by the young, for the young.” The store was destroyed several times because of wars, revolutions, and changing economies. Charlot was from a French colonial family, and was born in Algeria. Those Europeans born in Algeria between 1830 and 1962 were known as Pied-Noirs, about and for whom there continues to be controversy. He was a visionary who wanted to bridge the differences and divisions among the colonials and indigenous Algerians, who were, and are not one homogeneous group of people. As part of his ideal, he encouraged, mentored and published the works of many writers who would achieve world-wide recognition.
The plot of the novel intersects the past and the present, interweaving cultural, political, and social events throughout, as background for the fate of the bookstore. The fictitious shop is facing a final closure because the new owner wants to renovate, aka gentrify, the street. There are financial benefits in all of this. In the great sweeping out of the old, there is little appreciation, let alone foresight, about what makes the area unique. Ryad, a young man, is dispatched to empty the store and ready it for a new life as a beignet shop. Books have always made him uneasy. The one person who has maintained the store is old Abdallah, whose presence is a living reminder of the value of books, even though he can barely read any of them. Overriding the objectives of these two men, there is something far more sinister: “Watching Abdallah and Ryad through the foggy windshield of their gray Renault, the two men take notes.”
Adimi masterfully presents the life of Edmond Charlot, and the times in which he lived, and the ongoing consequences of colonization, whose effects cannot be neatly disentangled, to this day. As she layers the history of the past and the present through the lives of individual characters, she beautifully writes about the geography of Algiers, with its unique hues of blue, in the sky and sea, as they meet in the horizon, far more harmoniously than the people who lived there.