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Susan’s Bookshelves: Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin

My attention was drawn to Valérie Perrin’s 2020, warm, moving novel about love and loss by a French friend who read it in her native language. I thought about that but it would have taken me at least a year so I plumped for an English (American) translation which reads pretty well with only very occasional infelicities, That indefinable but distinctive French-ness still shines through: the wistfulness, the realism, the food, the places and above all the cemetery where Violette works as resident manager. It’s like Debussy in words.

Brought up in orphanages and foster homes, Violette becomes pregnant and marries Philippe Toussaint very young. They manage – or rather she does – a railway level crossing. It’s a very dysfunctional marriage, somehow more plausible in a French novel than it might be in a British one. He’s an absentee father, a womaniser and lazy. And his parents really are the in-laws from hell. But nothing in this novel is simple or black and white and eventually we learn more about Toussaint and discover that he’s a complex, rounded character. He behaves badly but he’s a long way from a straightforward stereotypical useless husband.

When disaster strikes – and what happens is truly appalling – Violette gets a job managing a cemetery further south. Toussaint goes with her but disappears more and more often and eventually for nineteen years. At the cemetery she grows her own vegetables and sells plants to mourners and her garden becomes a symbol of regrowth and healing. Bound up with all this is another story. A man called Julien Seul turns up at the cemetery very puzzled because his mother has left unexpected instructions that her ashes are to be interred there with the body of a famous lawyer. Gradually this back story is unravelled and Violette begins to feel that at last she might be able to move on.

It’s a subtle take on “multiple narrators”. We shift back and forth through time sometimes in the first person and sometimes the third. There are letters and diaries. But it’s all made clear with dates and fonts as the narrative winds – it’s quite leisurely –  towards an unexpected twist and a strong hint of happy ending.

Perrin’s characters are very engaging. Sasha the elderly gay man,  whom Violette comes to love like a father and from whom she takes over the cemetery and the garden, is delightfully drawn. So is Celia the woman she invites into her home at the level crossing when a train is halted by a strike. Celia lives in the Midi and offers Violette the annual use of her chalet for a holiday – it’s a longterm friendship to celebrate. The grave diggers and undertakers are memorable too. There are many others but I’m not doing spoilers here.

This book got under my skin.. “Death is not an absence, It’s a presence” is a thought I shall long ponder along with the assertion that if you love someone then nothing, not even death, can take that away. Valérie Perrin was new to me but it won’t be long before I explore more of her oeuvre.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Charlotte’s Web by EB White



Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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