P D Dawson
Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi (Book Review)
Jérôme Morval, a man whose passion for art was matched only by his passion for women, has been found dead in the stream that runs through the gardens of Giverny. In his pocket is a postcard of Monet’s Water Lilies with the words: Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.
Michel Bussi’s Black Water Lilies is a book to have been recently translated from the original French text. I have read a lot of crime fiction in the past but tend to stay away from the crime genre these days, as I got tired of the same formula being repeated again and again, with only minor deviations of technique and execution of plot thrown in, in an attempt to make it fresh. Of course there will always be readers who enjoy the formula for what it is, and who are endlessly captivated by the question of, who did it? And why? Usually referring to someone’s murder, or a sequence of murders. So I was hoping that Bussi, who seems to be making a name for himself as someone with a penchant for thrilling and mysterious crime stories, might just be the original crime thriller I’m looking for.
As I’ve said, I’ve not read many crime novels of late, and so forgive me for any possible ignorance in my statements about this book, as of course there may be many books of this very vein doing the rounds right now that I am unaware of, but as far as I can tell, Bussi is at least said to have an original and refreshing voice in the genre.
The book starts with an interesting introduction where an elderly women talks about the three women in the story to follow, and at the end, tells us that in this first person account, she is one of those three women, although she doesn’t divulge her name at this point. Without spoiling the plot techniques used in the novel, let me start by saying that this refreshingly succinct summary of the characters to come, holds vital clues to the way in which this book is written and the technique that has made it possible. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that the most important thing about this book and the way it achieves what it does, is by the use of the unreliable narrator. Make of that what you will, endow whichever characters you wish with that thought, but trust me, that is a vital clue which will only become clear at the end, or at least it will start to cone clear in the later part of the book.
In terms of the layout of this novel, and the initial set up, it is very much like any other crime thriller. You have Inspector Laurenç Sérénac and his sidekick Inspector Sylvio Bénavides, the Holmes and Watson of the story if you like, and then you have a femme fatale in the form of Stéphanie Dupain, who as the wife of the main suspect, often seems a contradiction of innocence and guilt. Stéphanie also appears to manipulate Sérénac with her young beauty, but there seems to be a fine line between whether she is a vulnerable character in need of help, or if she is calculating and devious with an ulterior motive of her own. Bussi plays that fine line well and brings doubt and suspicion on a number of characters throughout the story. The clever part and the bigger picture can only be revealed at the end, when the unreliability of past and present tense, and the role of the unreliable narrator, really comes into the force.
Black Water Lilies kept me engrossed for most of its length, however there were a few moments when I began to lose interest in a few of the characters. Where Bussi is strong, is in the way he weaves information about the real world of Giverny and the history of Monet and his paintings, with the characters and location of the story. I can only imagine the original French text was just as beautifully rendered as Shaun Whiteside’s translation, and indeed, the translation appears to be handled excellently in this book as I felt the prose flowed really well and the nature of the book must have thrown some obstacles in Whiteside’s way. On that note, I'd like to see more credit given to translators for the brilliant work they do.
So, as someone who now stays clear of the crime genre, has Black Water Lilies converted me? Perhaps not quite, however I did find it enjoyable and am now at least willing once again to try the occasional crime book that creates a stir, and most certainly if it has been written by Michel Bussi.