Monday 1 May 2017

Black Water Lilies, by Michael Bussi

A few thoughts about Black Water Lilies, by Michael Bussi

I read Michael Bussi’s After The Crash (ATC) and liked it enough to want to read this one, his next translated book. The only drawback I thought of that book was the “literary chimping” (more on this in an upcoming post), but that’s something very hard to avoid in thrillers these days. Never mind; on to Black Water Lilies (BWL).

BWL is a much more ambitious book than ATC was. It combines three parallel narratives of three women, each of which are heading towards some sort of tragedy. Everything is set in Giverny, Claude Monet’s village in France, and Bussi peppers his plot with details of the painter’s life, his legacy to the village, and his influence on the inhabitants. More than just Monet, the subject of painting, impressionistic painting in general, is explored quite a bit - nearly all the characters are obsessed with it.

So, the plot. The narrator is an old woman who lives in a watermill and who sees and hears everything of importance to the plot. The second relevant woman is Stephanie Dupain, a beautiful schoolteacher married to a jealous husband. The third is Fanette, a precocious child who’s an excellent painter. And the destabilizing event (or so we think) is the murder of a doctor in the village, and the arrival of the dashing young police inspector. Inspector () falls in love with Stephanie the moment he sees her. In the meantime, Fanette is working hard on a painting, inspired by Monet’s Water Lilies (of course), that will let he escape her life of poverty and win an art scholarship.

So the book starts off like a normal murder mystery - the doctor’s death and the investigation. It ends in a very different place, however. You will not believe how hard I’ve worked on that preceding paragraph not to give away spoilers. Because even more than ATC, this book has everything turned on its head in the very last two chapters - the timing, the characters, the sequence of events, and even the beginning of the book itself. It makes you want to go re-read the whole thing again.

The reason I did not, is that the “mystery” and the “solution”, are not created and resolved by the characters of the story - they’re done by the author. It’s important to make that difference. So for example, if you take The Devotion of Suspect X (and I highly recommend you should, because spoilers are coming in this sentence), although Higashino, the author, is playing with us to some extent by hiding the day-shifting, it feel like the cleverness comes from the protagonist character, Ishigami, and not from the writer Higashino. In Gone Girl (SPOILERS!!!), however, the alternate placement of Nick’s story and of Amy’s diary is clearly a writer’s trick to lead us astray. Had it not been done well, the book would have fallen flat.

Similarly, in BWL, the very deliberate placing of the multiple strands in the book leads us astray, and then again, the very deliberate placing of clues pulls us back on track. This is not the planning of any character - it’s Bussi. Like Gone Girl, the fact that it’s done well has saved the book (but GG did it even better!)

One last thought for those of you who have read the book: what genre is it? It’s not the genre it professes to be.

Worth reading? Yes, once at least, just for how well Bussi incorporates the field of painting, the culture around Monet, and for the neatly set up climax. 

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