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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Black Water Lilies--Murder in Monet's Village

I was astonished when my favorite Mystery/Thriller group on Goodreads selected Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi as a monthly read.   They don't usually choose to read translated books--unless they're Scandinavian noir.  When I discovered that it's an art mystery that takes place in the village where impressionist Claude Monet painted water lilies, I signed on to read it.  I love books dealing with art and artists. The last time I mentioned that was in my July review of The Beacons I See here.  That book contained an adult autistic protagonist who sketched for personal growth and theraputic reasons.  So I'm interested in fictional artists as well as famous ones like Monet.

This mystery is written in an unusual way.   The most fascinating aspect is that readers won't be aware of the unconventionality of the narrative until the mystery has been fully resolved.   I would characterize this book as literary because the author plays with chronology and character identities. Bussi is making a statement about identity.  If you read this book solely to find out whodunit, you may be disappointed.  I enjoyed the fact that this novel ended so unexpectedly, and I thought that the way that Bussi  handled the plot and the characters was effective.  The character that I identified with the most was Fantine, a talented teen who hoped to follow in Monet's footsteps and become a great artist.

Fantine's quest relates to a statement made by a curator in the novel that it's against the interest of  art institutions devoted to the great artists of the past to find new talent because a living great artist who is currently producing work would displace artists like Monet among collectors.   I  disagree with this fictional curator's observation.  I may not be an expert, but based on my knowledge of art history, all great art appreciates in value over time.  A great living artist might hope that the work he or she is producing now could become as valuable as Monet's in a couple of centuries.

Monet is primarily known as an impressionist, but there are those who also consider him the founder of abstract expressionism.   The curator character mentioned in the above paragraph believes that the abstract paintings were a result of Monet's struggle with blindness in his last years, and that he was still painting water lilies.  If so, it's an accidental discovery of a new style which is an interesting development.  I found a 2010 article from The Daily Beast called Did Monet Invent Abstract Art? by Rachel Wolff. 

There's a quote that's found on the victim whose death is being investigated in Black Water Lilies.  It's from a poem by Louis Aragon who was a friend of Monet's.  Louis Aragon was a radical poet who was censored by the Vichy government during WWII.   I was glad to discover him through this book.   I found a poem of his that I thought was beautiful in the English translation here.  The last two verses are relevant to Black Water Lilies.

The setting is the village of Giverny whose main industry appears to be tourism.   The tourists expect to see the Giverny that Monet knew untouched by time.  One of the characters complains that the residents can't even make the most minor changes.   At one point in the narrative, trees planted in the 1980's were chopped down because they would ruin the tourists' view of Monet's pond.  This is a drawback of living in a location where the landscape itself is considered iconic.   That pond gives visitors a feeling of connection to Monet.  As someone who is fond of the French impressionists, I can understand why the tourists come. On the other hand, if this book is a true reflection of living in contemporary Giverny, I also can empathize with the contemporary residents. Some citizens of Giverny may feel that their needs are being ignored in favor of maintaining the village as a shrine to Monet's paintings of water lilies. I'm sure that there are readers who would respond to this objection by saying that the villagers benefit economically from tourism.   While that is true, the demand that the village look exactly the way it did in Monet's day seems excessive to me.

Bussi mentions the fact that Monet's house, gardens and pond were reconstructed in Japan.  This is actually very appropriate because Monet was so influenced by Japanese art.   There's a web page about this reconstruction in Kitagawa, Japan here.  Does the fact that a reconstruction exists take anything away from Giverny? I don't think so. I like the fact that the Kitagawa tribute to Monet exists because of Monet's cultural debt to Japan.

I thought this book was well-written and I learned a great deal about Monet, but as a mystery fan I felt dis-satisfied because I wanted justice for the victims.  That's a motivation for reading mysteries.  We find out whodunit and justice is achieved after all is revealed.  This isn't that sort of mystery.  I closed the book feeling badly for all the victims of the perpetrator.




  1. In addition to this book, there's also a novel called Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell which is about Monet's romance with Camille Doncieux. You might enjoy that, Jennifer.