Literature theorists talk of something called a “Destabilising Event” in a story—something that disturbs the ongoing life of the characters, causing the book’s events to begin. So a typical love story, for example, has the two leads meeting as the destabilising event. An Agatha Christie novel would have the initial murder as the destabilising event.
Black Water Lilies, by Michael Bussi, starts off very similar to an Agatha Christie book, with a murder of a doctor in a French village. The village happens to be Giverny, the home of Claude Monet, and the setting for most of his famous impressionistic paintings. The police arrives, in the form of a idiosyncratic police inspector, and begins to investigate the suspects. The inspector suspects an extra-marital affair as the root cause of the killing. This view is bolstered by the receipt of an anonymously sent set of photos of the victim with various women. So far so good.
But there is a lot more going on in this book. The story is narrated by an unnamed old woman, who tells us of three people whose lives are about to change—a little girl, a school teacher, and the old woman herself. The murder suspect is the husband of the pretty school teacher, and the inspector is rather too keen to interview her again and again. In the meantime, the little girl is painting her own interpretations of Monet’s famous Water Lilies paintings, hoping to win an art school scholarship and escape poverty. And the old woman, unnoticed by all, claims to know the truth behind the murder. The inspector may be barking up the wrong tree.
Is that all? No. Because it turns out the doctor’s murder is not the destabilising event of the plot after all. It’s something else, which becomes clear to us only towards the end. We eventually realise this is not a typical murder mystery with clues and magnifying glasses. In a deft twist of narration, Bussi misdirects us into looking in entirely the wrong place for much of the book.
It is key to note that the misdirection is done by Bussi, the writer, and not the characters themselves. Each of the characters is focused on themselves, trying to solve the problems of their own lives. Even the narrator is not aiming to be unreliable. The writer, however, is carefully arranging the sequence of events to make things seem different. Compare this to the suspense of, say, an Alfred Hitchcock movie—the camera hides very little, but the characters and the slow unfolding of events is what creates the tension. When there is something hidden from the viewer, it’s because one of the characters wants to hide it. In contrast, in Black Water Lilies, the whole thing feels a bit stage-managed.
This is not to say it isn’t a lot of fun. When the trick works, it works. The setting makes for part of the fun. Giverny is described in detail—the pond of Water Lilies fame, Monet’s house and gardens, the streams and the river, the terrain nearby. Monet’s life, his legacy, and his impact on the world of art are an invisible presence throughout the book. Several of the lead characters are students of Impressionism.
It is a completely engrossing book, with a complex storyline and a big reveal. The book was a huge success in its native French, and it is easy to see why. Bussi’s previously translated book, After the Crash, did well too, but this is definitely more complex and layered.