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Review: Black Water Lilies, Michel Bussi
Black Water Lilies is a murder mystery set in Giverny, the small French village in which Claude Monet lived for the later part of his life and painted most of his famous water lilies. The author claims that his representations of the village and of Monet’s life and art are accurate, and certainly the novel is full of detail on these points, delivered diegetically and otherwise, in much the same way that Tom Clancy or other airport thrillers might provide details of handguns or nuclear submarines. Other key features of the novel include the poetry of Louis Aragon, infidelity, and how American tourists ruin everything. It is, in short, extremely French.
It is also novel with a twist. I think it would be rather more fun to read if you didn’t know there would be a twist, but it’s unfortunately impossible to have this experience because the publisher has helpfully advertised its twistiness on the front cover of the book. I cannot undo, but can avoid compounding their mistake: I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the first half of this review and then talk about it in more detail in the second half.
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The novel opens by telling us that it is a story of three women - a young girl, a schoolteacher, and an old woman. Each of these has their own viewpoint, between which the novel rapidly switches:
A third-person narration of the investigation into the murder of the village doctor, centred on the lead investigator Laurenç and the schoolmistress Stéphanie.
The first-person account of the old woman, who lives alone in the mill overlooking the village, introduces the novel, and watches the investigation (among other things) from the background.
A third-person narration centred on Fannette, a school-girl in the village who is trying to become a painter.
The majority of the plot, if not the total word-count, is devoted to the murder investigation. The victim is the wealthy and successful village doctor, and the murder itself follows the three-fold pattern of the viewpoints: he has been stabbed, bludgeoned, and finally drowned in the brook that feeds Monet’s lily-pond. It is soon revealed that despite the beauty of his wife, he had many affairs with a cavalcade of similarly beautiful women.
(All women in the novel are, of course, ‘ravishingly beautiful’, ‘heavenly’, ‘voluptuous’ or a ‘bombshell’ - with the sole exception of one of the victim’s lovers, who has ‘a rather unattractive face’: but ‘after all, the girl is English’. As I said, très français.)
The doctor is also revealed to have been on a quest to obtain an original Monet Water Lilies, and to have been in contact with both a shady local art dealer and a foreign art foundation, which has its own sinister motives for controlling the global supply of art… and artists. Other leads include the mythical ‘black water lilies’, which Monet allegedly painted after the death of his wife, the rumoured presence of lost masterpieces hidden in Monet’s house, the apparently identical murder of a young boy on the same spot 60 years before, and a ‘counter-investigation’ into the murder by retired police inspector and art expert Laurentin.
The official investigation is being run by Laurenç, a southerner who has been recently transferred to Giverny and is nicely contrasted with the ‘Norman’ sensibilities of his deputy in the village. Knowing very little about French regional snobbery I was happy to take the stereotypes at face value; they may play differently with a French reader. Laurenç is artistic, intuitive, rides a motorcycle and has a leather jacket and blond stubble, and so it will not surprise you to learn that he begins his seduction of the beautiful (and married) schoolmistress within a page of meeting her. His deputy, Sylvio, is methodical, conscientious, and very clearly a superior detective in almost every way; his reward is for his heavily-pregnant wife to torment him with her fondness for Laurenç. Again, almost trop français.
Most of the dialogue in the novel is between these two men, and so it’s unfortunate that almost everything they say is stilted and awkward. In fact, the ‘writing’ (ie. the actual words used in the novel, not the plot or the characterisation and so on) is pretty poor throughout. Some of this must be the fault of the translation, which I suspect is rather literal, with little regard for idiom or ‘natural’ vocabulary choices. Consider this rather silly example:
The policemen make themselves comfortable as best they can. Sylvio Bénavides sits on a step between two cardboard boxes, and Laurenç Sérénac’s buttocks are perched on the edge of an enormous wooden bin full of lithographs.
My French isn’t good enough to read the original, so I can’t say for sure how I’d translate that sentence - but I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t use the word ‘buttocks’.
Other stylistic failings include a superfluity of adjectives and adverbs, and an irritating insistence on using characters’ full names long after they’ve been introduced to the reader (as in the above example, which is from Chapter 24 - we’ve been with both policemen for a hundred pages by this point). However, the most annoying is a tendency to unnecessarily separate clauses into individual sentences. The usual effect of this is to give the shortened sentence particular significance, especially when it comes after a longer one. For example:
Strangely, the police were only interested in the second woman, the most beautiful; the third, the most innocent, had to carry out her own investigation. The first, the most discreet, was left in peace to keep an eye on everyone. And to kill.
In this case, the last sentence rightly receives greater emphasis and the effect is a good one. Unfortunately, this trick is overused, giving random lines unneeded emphasis, or, worse, giving the impression of the author trying to cash emotional cheques that haven’t yet been earned:
‘Do you want to read?’
Stéphanie looks over at the bedside table. There’s only one book lying on it. Aurélien. By Louis Aragon.
‘No, not tonight. You can turn out the light’.
Night descends on the room.
The black panties slip to the ground.
Stéphanie turns towards her husband.
Again, I don’t know to what degree this is an artefact of translation; perhaps it works better in the French.
Overall, this is like the use of the present tense throughout - sometimes justified and sometimes irritating, but ultimately something you get used to and learn to ignore. And once you've done that, Black Water Lilies is a great read - well-paced, in a novel, interesting setting, with an engaging cast and mystery. Plus, of course, there's that twist, which is pretty clever.
If this sounds as though it’s a book you'd like to read, then stop reading this review, because now I want to talk about The Twist.
The twist is that the three women, whose viewpoints have been presented as three different perspectives on the murder investigation, are actually the same woman at different points in time: the old woman is remembering, not watching, the events of the investigation, which took place while she was the village schoolmistress. Meanwhile, Fannette’s view is of Stéphanie’s youth, when she gave herself and her friends the pseudonyms of famous Impressionists (Paul, Claude, etc) that disguised their identities throughout that narration.
The revelation itself is very neatly handled, slipping out almost by accident when Stéphanie remembers the moment of grief at the death of her classmate, when she resolved to never paint again and abandon her nome de plume, and the build-up to this moment is similarly well-paced. There are lots of minor details that seem to make less and less sense, culminating in a dog that was apparently killed on one page being alive on the next - and then, just as you’re really confused and wondering if the author had suffered a stroke while writing, Stéphanie drops that one tiny detail and it all makes sense. For once, I agree with the blurb - it’s a really excellent moment and justifies the rest of the book.
Unfortunately, Bussi is determined to spoil the moment. A lot of the fun in the pages immediately following the twist is thinking ‘wait, that can’t be right, what about X’, where X is something you remember that seems to imply Fannette and Stéphanie were in the same scene, and then you remember that actually they weren’t, and so on, and you are struck again by the cleverness of it all. It will also have occurred to approximately 100% of readers within about a second that if two of the characters are actually the same person, the third will be as well, and to have realised that the old woman is Stéphanie, 30 years on, narrating her regret. However, Bussi doesn’t share my opinion of the reader and spends the rest of the book explaining his tricks, walking back through previous scenes and showing off how he did it.This kind of victory lap works in something like Ocean’s 11, where you’re invested in the characters and want to know how they succeeded - but I don’t care at all about the author and his desire to grandstand, especially when I was having a lot of fun working it out for myself.
The twist also suffers the fate of many twists, in that by changing our perspective it trivializes the things we’ve cared about the most for the majority of the book (cf. Ocean’s 12). In this case, most of the novel has been focussed on the whodunnit. The obvious suspect has been Stéphanie’s husband, Jacques - but there’s no firm evidence, and Laurenç’s certainty in Jacques’ guilt is undermined by his obvious sexual interest in Stéphanie. Much of the ‘plot development’ in the middle portion of the novel is spent comparing Laurenç’s intuition with his deputy’s logical analysis of multiple motives, and running through the mass of red herrings described at the start of this review. But then the twist reveals that Jacques is in fact the murderer, and for the same banal reason that Laurenç suspected all along - he thought (correctly) that the victim was trying to seduce his wife - and so the entire interesting web of motives and connections and details that the author has laboured over for the last two hundred pages is chucked out as stale, flat and unprofitable. To a degree, this is a risk in any murder mystery - once you know the butler did it, you obviously know the others didn’t and any investigation into them is rendered a little less interesting in retrospect - but the key thing is that in those cases you actually care about the mystery itself. Here, the twist basically says “oh, you thought this was about finding the murderer but actually it’s about how it’s ok to leave your husband because you wanted to fuck a sexy policeman in your schoolroom, haha, gotcha!”, and leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.
Perhaps that’s the best summary of the book I can give: a tantalizing entrée, a hearty plat principal, a spectacular dessert - and a bitter aftertaste.
I want to talk about that last point a little more, because if you have read the book you might think I’ve taken it the wrong way. As the last chapters of the book play out, you learn that Jacques - who until now has been unpleasant but “more sinned against than sinning” - is in fact an utterly vile and ruthless man, who became obsessed with Stéphanie when they were both children, killed a classmate of hers to prevent her from entering an art competition that might cause her to leave the village, who (as a child) killed a tramp who was encouraging Stéphanie in her art, who killed the doctor becuase he might seduce his wife, and has subtly manipulated Stéphanie into staying in the village with him despite their increasingly loveless marriage. On his deathbed, he confesses all of this to Stéphanie, and she promptly mercy-kills him. Really, who can blame her?
The problem is that for almost all the novel, including when she cheats on Jacques and tries to leave him, Stéphanie doesn’t know this! We are repeatedly told, from her perspective, how her husband loves her. When she tells him she plans to leave, he is polite and calm; when he realises she’s cheated on him he says nothing to her about it. Instead, he confronts the policeman who had him illegally detained so he could try to fuck his wife and uses this obvious abuse of power to blackmail him into leaving the village. It’s hard to like Jacques, but it’s also hard to feel he’s particularly in the wrong in doing so - and then you find out he’s killed three people. And then the author spends a few pages going on in a very French way about how aren’t women always the victims here really and you making feel bad about ever having felt some support for Jacques but it was only because you hid all the important facts about him for the entire bloody book!
I don’t know if there’s a technical term for when an author makes you think X and then makes you feel bad for thinking X, but it’s a technique with a long and illustrious heritage. Done well, it makes you think in more depth both about yourself and about the text. Milton is a master of this; the classic, textbook example is his description of Eve’s “wanton ringlets” in Paradise Lost. ‘wanton’ in 1667 probably best translates to ‘loose’ today, in having the double-meaning of ‘physically loose’ and ‘sexually promiscuous’. Milton uses the first meaning, suggests the second, and then in the following lines repeats the first meaning and makes you feel a bit dirty for having read the second, and in a poem all about desire and moral failings that’s an outstanding move. It is, perhaps, unfair to complain that Michel Bussi is not John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, but the equivalent here would be to have a detailed description of Eve shagging her way through the entire Persian Gulf and then on the last page backtrack and say "actually she was a model of chastity and devoted familial love, how could you have ever thought otherwise, you filthy sexist". It feels a bit forced, is my point.
But then, perhaps I’m imagining this a bit; perhaps this is a bit of a cultural disconnect from an uncultured Anglo-Saxon looking at the Sophisticated Continental. As the old joke goes:
As I was heading to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives
Of course, the seven wives weren’t his:
But then, in France, that’s how it is.
Perhaps the worst offender here is the little scene in which Stéphanie visits the graves of her many dogs, all of whom were called ‘Neptune’. Yes, we get it, people might own more than one dog in their lifetime!
No, wait, the absolute worst scene is of course Jacques’ deathbed confession, in which he exhaustively describes the entire plot of the novel from his perspective, long after we’ve already worked out or have been explicitly told all the details.
I mean, how many people does that description even apply to? I’m gonna say five, tops.