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?