The Plot Thickens: Murder and Monet

Michel Bussi is back; a mammoth Japanese crime novel looks at the darkness within.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published:December 24, 2016 12:55 am
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Book name: Black Water Lilies
Author: Michel Bussi
Publisher: Orion
Pages: 368
Price: 399

Michel Bussi’s debut title in English, After the Crash, was such a masterpiece that, perhaps, it would be criminal of one to hope that his second, Black Water Lillies, would match up. It doesn’t, and not by a long shot. But Bussi remains masterful at the art of concealing the most obvious of clues in plain sight.

Bussi changes course, moving from the Jura mountains in the French Alps to Giverny, a picturesque little village famous for being the home of Claude Monet, the renowned Impressionist painter. It is 2010 and amidst the rush of tourists and tourist-painters who flood Giverny to be close to all things Monet, the ghastly murder of the richest man in the village threatens to paint it red. There is only one person who knows the truth — apart from the murderer, perhaps — an old woman sitting in her room, high up on the fourth floor of an old mill, watching the world from her window and savouring the knowledge of her years. While she is the narrator of the tale, Black Water Lilies is not simply her story — it also belongs to Fanette, an 11-year-old girl with an extraordinary talent to turn life into art, and Stephanie, a school teacher whose beauty is possibly her biggest curse. It catches the eye of Inspector Laurence Serenac and sends her husband Jacques into a fit of jealousy. We know how these things usually end — badly.

And, somewhere, at the heart of the crime, is a rumour that towards the end of his days, Monet, who painted his water lilies almost obsessively every day, started to daub them with a darker colour, creating a set of black water lily paintings.

A new, undiscovered Monet could set off a frenzy in Giverny, a place caught inside a pastel cocoon, in a time warp that never seems to break. If the desire to see where Monet lived has brought the world to their doorstep, who is to say that it is not cause enough for murder?

Bussi is an artist, perhaps, almost as ingenious as Monet. The setting is not just a scene of a crime; still life has movement, and colours become true at the change of the light. But he coils the plot so tightly with so much detail, that it is as claustrophobic as Giverny — its beauty is its downfall.

The non-linear narrative offers no respite, and the pace, which was one of the strongest aspects of After the Crash, falters from time to time. By the time you have reached the denouement, and all the pieces of the puzzle are in their rightful place, you finally appreciate Bussi’s craft. It takes an awfully long time to get there, but that’s art, is it not? Either you get it, or you don’t.

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