Black Water Lilies: Michel Bussi

Translated from French by Shaun Whiteside
Published by W&N

Giverny: a beautiful, picturesque village in France, known for its most famous resident, the impressionist painter Claude Monet, who is famous for his paintings of water lilies. Artists and tourists flock to the village to see the beautiful gardens that Monet painted.

But death appears in even the most beautiful places. Dentist Jérôme Morval is found stabbed and with his head bashed in, face down in the river. The detectives investigating the crime are Laurenç Sérénac, an outsider who has just been assigned to Giverny, and his sergeant, Silvio Bénavides, who is from the village.

At the core of the story are three women, all of different ages: Fanette, an eleven-year-old who is a gifted painter; Stéphanie, 36 years old, the beautiful schoolteacher married to a jealous man, Jacques; and the old woman who narrates part of the story, a woman who sees everything from her home on the fourth floor of the mill. She describes herself as “over eighty and a widow. Almost”. She moves unnoticed in the village: “Old women are condemned to the shadow, to darkness, to the night. They pass, forgotten.” Especially in this beautiful village of light and colour. “Well, that suits me”, she adds.

All three want to leave the village, seeing it as a prison: “a big, beautiful garden, surrounded by a fence. Like the grounds of an asylum. A trompe d’oeil. A painting from which you could not escape.” The village itself is like a fly trapped in amber: because of its history and the fact that it pulls in tourists, nothing can be changed.

Fanette is painting the water lilies for an art competition for young artists, encouraged by an old American painter, James, and her closest friend Paul, who adores her. She also has another admirer: Vincent, a possessive boy who often spies on her.

Stéphanie wants children of her own but she and Jacques are not able to have any. She feels suffocated in her marriage and the village. She and Sérénac are drawn to each other, and she sees him as her escape from the village. Things become complicated when Sérénac arrests Jacques for Morval’s murder.

The old lady sees everything that goes on in the village and seems to know a lot about its inhabitants. The narrative moves between her first-person account and third-person narratives focusing on Fanette, Stéphanie and the investigation.

The mysteries pile up. Many decades ago, a boy died in almost the same way as Morval. Is there a connection between the two murders? Why was Morval killed? Is it to do with his passion for collecting art and his search for a forgotten Monet painting of waterlilies? There are the rumours that Monet painted black waterlilies towards the end of his life. Most people discount the rumours, but the old lady keeps referring her painting of black waterlilies that hangs where no one else can it. Is that the missing painting?

This book combines murder with a knowledge of art and the cult behind Monet. It is unusual in the way it is structured. I won’t say more about the plot because the reveal at the end had me stunned: I really did not see it coming. It made me want to go back and read the book again. I would love to say more but would hate to spoil the book for you.

Michel Bussi’s description of the village is meticulous. I checked it on Google maps, and found the mill where the old lady lives, and the streets are exactly as they are described. The book also taught me quite a bit about Monet’s relationship with the village and the villagers, which was not always harmonious. Bussi paints a picture of what it must be like to live in a village like Giverny, a place that has to remain unchanged for the tourists.

I enjoyed the book, although the plot did get a bit convoluted at times. Read it, but be warned: nothing is as it seems.

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