Review - Black Water Lilies, Michel Bussi

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Michel Bussi is a renowned crime fiction writer and winner of many awards in his native France, BLACK WATER LILIES being the second of his books translated into English. It would appear from both of them (the first was AFTER THE CRASH) he is particularly good at unusual, absolutely enthralling scenarios. 

Start reading BLACK WATER LILIES and you could be forgiven for double-checking the classification of this book. It doesn't read at all like a crime novel, but then it's not immediately clear where this is heading at all. You're introduced to three female characters - the young girl, the beautiful older woman and the all-seeing old, wise woman. There's also a feeling of overwhelming doom associated with each of these characters, disconcerting when it's so easy to become immediately engaged with these women, more so as the narrative progresses. From the young, artistically gifted girl, through to the slightly more shadowy older woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, onto the strongest and most prevalent voice - the old woman invisible in her community, at the centre of everything. The context immediately becomes unclear - at points it feels like it might be heading into family saga territory, but there's something "other" about it as well - mystical or supernatural. But there's also a murder and it's obvious somebody knows a lot about that, and there are secrets everywhere.

The setting, Monet's home village of Giverny, is gloriously depicted. From the gardens and the water sources from his paintings, to the narrow winding streets this small village sits in the middle of farmland which also weaves its way into the story, as it did Monet's paintings. There is the beautiful and mysterious mill; the hotels and the bars and cafes; and the village school with its lovely and popular young teacher. Into this scenario a couple of policemen step when the body of a local man is found in the river in the town. The local cop, with his pregnant wife and bbq collection, the younger and more senior in the force, from another part of France - an outsider whose job it is to get inside the heads of the locals.

BLACK WATER LILIES weaves an hypnotic tale around these three women, the town, Monet's work, murder and the tourism that threatens to overwhelm this small place. It pulls in threads from the art world, and the obsession with collection and ownership that great artworks engender in people. It balances the competing priorities of place and circumstances with strong, clever and believable characters. It subtly draws the readers eye to the biases and perceptions that can be built up about people - young girls with single mothers, old women who disappear into the background, loveless marriages, convenience, and those secrets. Always at the bottom of everything in BLACK WATER LILIES there are secrets. Along with manipulation and self-interest.

But BLACK WATER LILIES's greatest strength is in the homage to all things impressionistic. Just like the great paintings of that school, different viewpoints reveal different aspects, and what is seen in close up is very different to that from some distance. Just like with those paintings, for a large part of this novel, shapes swirl and patterns move across the eye. Just as the reader feels that everything is falling into place, a step back, and the story solidifies into something unexpected. It's cleverly done, elegantly presented, a case of pitch-perfect show don't tell, ensuring that the reader is unlikely to come away feeling manipulated or cheated. Emotional and a bit like you've been put through a wringer sure, but not manipulated. 

Year of Publication

Giverny. During the day, tourists flock to the former home of the famous artist Claude Monet and the gardens where he painted his Water Lilies. But when silence returns, there is a darker side to the peaceful French village.

This is the story of thirteen days that begin with one murder and end with another. 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. In his pocket is a postcard of Monet's Water Lilies with the words: Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.

Entangled in the mystery are three women: a young painting prodigy, the seductive village schoolteacher and an old widow who watches over the village from a mill by the stream. All three of them share a secret. But what do they know about the discovery of Jérôme Morval's corpse? And what is the connection to the mysterious, rumoured painting of Black Water Lilies?

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