BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi

What a bewitchingly clever book Michel Bussi’s “Black Water Lilies” is, the original page turner if ever there was one, and a book that keeps you guessing right until the final sentence.

It is also a book that is virtually impossible to review without spoiling everything for those who still have this book to read.

A murder takes place in Giverny, the pretty French village that was home to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, and is now a pilgrimage site for tourists the world over, who converge on Monet’s house, his famous garden and its even more famous pond of water lilies.

At the beginning of the novel, our narrator gives us a quick lowdown on what is to follow :

“Three women lived in a village.

The first was mean, the second a liar, and the third an egotist…

…All three were quite different.  But they had something in common, a secret  All three dreamed of leaving.  Yes, of leaving Giverny…”

Giverny is an essential part of this brilliantly constructed murder mystery, its beauty both a charm and a curse.

We are privileged to see much of this pretty place in the warm summer mornings, almost at daybreak, when one of the oldest residents of the village walks her dog Neptune through the pre-tourist-rush deserted streets, and muses about the changes she has witnessed in Giverny over the years.  Our narrator is waspish, and doesn’t like what she sees:

“Having seen all the changes that have taken place in the village over the years, I sometimes have the feeling that Giverny has become a giant theme park.”

She rues the car parks and the tourist buses, the crowds, the wannabe painters, the Babel of languages and the constant traffic, all of which floods into Giverny every morning, stays for a noisy day and then departs in the evening, leaving the village it used to be.

“But I won’t lie to you.  For most of the day, Monet’s meadow is, in fact, a giant car park.  Four car parks, to be precise, clustered around a bitumen stem like a water lily made of tarmac.  I think I can afford to say this thing, at my age.  I have seen the landscape transform itself, year after year.  Today Monet’s countryside is just a commercial backdrop.”

Our narrator who walks with difficulty, and has only her friendly Alsatian Neptune for company, walks virtually unnoticed though the streets of the village where she was born and has lived all her life. She accepts that as an old lady, in black, her head covered with a headscarf, she is largely invisible to the tourists who flock to Giverny every day.  Old age and loneliness are one of the leitmotivs in her narration.  She observes the world around her with a keen eye, whilst realising that the world largely ignores her very presence:

“Go and stand on a street corner, any corner, a Parisian boulevard, in the square by a village church, wherever you like…You turn to gaze at a girl’s bare navel, you push your way past the senior executive in a hurry, or the gang of young people filling the pavement, you glance at the buggy, the baby in it and the mother behind it.  But an old man or woman…They are invisible.  Precisely because they pass so slowly that they are almost part of the decor, like a tree or a street light.  If you don’t beleive me, just try it.  You’ll see.”

The village school teacher, the beautiful Stéphanie Dupain, is one of the 3 women mentioned by the narrator in the opening moments of the book.  Stéphanie is much loved by her young pupils, and she quickly captivates the newly arrived Police Inspector Laurenç Sérénac.  He knows that she is married, and that her husband might be a suspect in the murder he is investigating and yet, despite professional misgivings, he is drawn to her.  He admires her beauty although, in a telling moment infused with art, he wonders about her:

“As the teacher leans over and turns away slightly, the ray of sunlight shining through the window reflects off the white paper and illuminates her face, a reading woman bathed in a halo of light that is suggestive of Fragonard, Degas, Vermeer,  For just a moment, Sérénac is touched by a strange idea, an impression: not one of the young woman’s gestures is spontaneous; the grace of each movement is too perfect, calculated, studied. She is posing for him…”

The third woman mentioned is a child, the prodigiously talented Fanette, who has a gift and a talent for painting that she doesn’t fully understand, but that is so strong it governs her young life.  Against the wishes of her mother, and despite the petty playground jealousies of her school friends, Fanette knows one thing.  She has to paint.  And, like the narrator and Stéphanie, Fanette wants to leave the gilded cage that is Giverny.

Stéphanie compares living in Giverny to living in a painting:

“…the décor is frozen.  Petrified.  You’re not allowed to redecorate any of the houses in a different way, repaint a wall, pick so much as a single flower.  There are laws forbidding it.  We live in a painting here.  We’re walled in…”

The plot of this novel is dazzlingly clever, but I absolutely cannot share it with you here.  If you haven’t yet read the book, there is no way I’m going to spoil one single moment of it for you.

The extent of M. Bussi’s cleverness only reveals itself right at the end of the book, and then you sit there, blinking at the brilliance, and re-thinking the storyline, and suddenly realising how all the parts fit together even more superbly than you had realised.

Originally published in French, in 2011, Shaun Whiteside has done a brilliant job of translating it into English.

The English version was published in 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

The paperback sells for £7.99 in the UK & for Rs 399 in India.

If you haven’t already read this book, and now wish to do so, it couldn’t be easier.  Here are two links for you – and you don’t need guiding through the online ordering process, now, do you?

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

How is it possible that this stunning novel eluded me for 2 years?

What a read.

I sat up in the misty Himalayas, wrapped in a duvet against the damp chill, and read and read and read and didn’t go exploring.  Just gobbled up this dark, gripping, clever book.

The book opens with a bang:

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

And from that sentence on, we start unravelling the man behind the public persona of handsome, urbane, successful Oliver Ryan.

The format of the book, telling the story mainly in flashback, and always from a different person’s perspective, is initially a little unsettling.  For the first few chapters, until the characters all settled into place, I had to keep double checking who was now speaking, but after a while, as the story proceeds, the cleverness (and the consummate skill) of hearing all these different voices, from different time frames, and seeing different perspectives and views add to the mystery.

“Unravelling Oliver” is a psychological thriller of note.

Oliver is a man who has just beaten his wife into a coma in the opening moments of the book.  He is a man with many secrets.  And yet, such is the skill of Ms Nugent’s spare prose, that there are moments when we feel genuinely sorry for this manipulative man.

For make no mistake, Oliver manipulates people shamelessly, from his earliest days of getting to know women in his student days in early 1970s Dublin:

“I have learned over the years how to charm them.  It’s not too hard if you are handsome and can appear to be clever with a dry wit. Then, gradually, begin to take an interest, as if she is a specimen in a laboratory.  Poke her a bit with a long stick while keeping your distance.  Ignore her for long periods to see how she reacts and then give her a good shake.  It almost always works.”

There are so many layers to the story, and as you the reader, peel back each new layer, the story gets progressively deeper and more mysterious.  With hindsight, you realise that echoes and precursors of the truth behind Oliver are scattered throughout the book.

Here, for example, where Véronique talks about her father, a man who suffered much at the hands of the Gestapo:

“He had told nobody and, despite his heroics, he felt nothing but shame.  I think it an honourable thing not to visit your horror upon those that you love, but I suspect that the pain of keeping it inside must also cause a lesion to the soul.”

With hindsight, we realise that these words – well, some of them – could apply equally to Oliver.  Oliver is not heroic, but he does have secrets that he will not and cannot share.

This is a story with dark tragedy at its centre, but yet there are moments of pure beauty, too.

When you read this toddler’s reactions to a story being told to him, it is such a joyous vignette:

“As Monsieur began to tell the story, I watched the boy’s face as he perched on his papi’s knee.  He was transfixed by the tale of a happy young prince of a fantastical land and would exclaim in the middle of the telling, would hide his eyes at the arrival of the bad witch, and clap his hands in excitement at our hero’s escape in the end.”

Books and stories, and the telling of stories, and the not telling of stories, are all part of the fabric of this clever book.  There are twists and turns right up until the closing paragraph.

Consummate story-telling.

Ireland per se isn’t a character as such in the book, but the social situation and the mores of 1970s Dublin, are a leitmotiv running through the book, influencing the decisions and behaviour of the characters.

For example, the parlous state of Irish food in the 1970s comes in for gentle criticism, when Michael spends a summer in France:

“Ireland in those days was a gastronomic wilderness.  Parsley sauce was considered the height of sophistication.  Here, I learned that boiling was not the only way to teat a vegetable…and that garlic existed.”

A great read.  A gripping story.  Totally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, here you go.

Couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link, and yes, of course, you know the rest…