In my rather too large pile of books to write up, I discovered that I had two novels translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle. I’ve so much enjoyed her translations of the first two volumes of the YA Fantasy series The Mirror Visitor by Christelle Dabos (see here and here). I read Valérie Perrin’s novel Fresh Water for Flowers a couple of months ago, and until I came to write it up, I’d completely forgotten that it was also translated for Europa Editions by Serle, so a pair of reviews for you today, linked by their translator (and publisher).
The Memory of Babel – Book 3 in the Mirror Visitor Quartet by Christelle Dabos
After being separated from her betrothed, Thorn by events at the end of volume two, Ophelia has spent two and a half years at home in Anima, her home ark, wondering what to do. She can’t wait for him forever! (Although an arranged marriage, there was definitely a spark deep in there). In the end, she decides to go it alone in her search for the key to what is happening – there is an ongoing theme of a vengeful god and hidden adversaries. She sets off for the magical city of Babel – which has a famed library – where there must be more answers. She travels there under an assumed name, and immediately gets into trouble – for Ophelia is not only clumsy, but stands out a mile with her animated scarf and untidy appearance. Babel is a society that is near totalitarian, hide-bound by rules. She makes friends with a young man she knocks into, who helps her with understanding her situation. But how to get into the library in the citadel at the centre of the city?
She has to go back to school effectively – well college. Again, she stands out a mile there, much to the dismay of the favourites, for competition for the few places is very tough indeed, and the other students and staff continually set her up to fail. Failure is not a word in Ophelia’s vocabulary though, she just works harder…
I won’t say more about the plot. While I still enjoyed this instalment a lot, the going back to school plot didn’t do a lot for me. I wanted more news of Thorn! (He does turn up eventually, but not in the way you’d hope). Dabos does, however, continue with some super world-building, showing another different society in detail on this ark. Things only really start to move in the later stages of the novel, the whole college sections giving a breathing space before what will surely be an all-action final volume and hopefully explaining what happened to make God break up the Earth into the arks. La Tempête Des Échos is out in French, so I can’t wait for the English translation next year.
Source: Review copy – thank you to Europa Editions UK. Christelle Dabos, The Memory of Babel, hardback, 450 pages.
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Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin
Like the aforementioned, Fresh Water for Flowers is one of those quiet novels, the story of a French woman’s life, loves and work – that is anything but quiet. It is full of drama, unfolding over 476 pages of compulsive reading, and was a #1 bestseller in France.
My name is Violette Toussaint. I was a level-crossing keeper, now I’m a cemetery keeper.
With that simple statement Violette introduces herself and, essentially, her life to us. She goes on to give us her credo:
My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them. Without the weight of my soul, which, apparently, whether you’re fat or thin, tall or short, young or old, weighs twenty-one grams.
But since I’ve never had a taste for unhappiness, I decided it wouldn’t last. Unhappiness has to stop someday.
Her story goes on to jump forwards and backwards through her timeline, but at the beginning we discover she was given up at birth. The chapters are short, next we jump to 1997 – the day she and her then husband, Philippe Toussaint, lost their jobs as level-crossing keepers when the crossing
they Violette managed was automated. Violette soon found a new job in Burgundy as a cemetery keeper, but Philippe wasn’t keen. She went ahead, and he never followed. Violette becomes a fixture at the cemetery, her cottage open to all who need succour, and she in turn is looked after by the three gravediggers, Nono, Gaston and Elvis; the brothers Lucchini, who are undertakers; and charismatic priest Father Cédric.
As the chapters progress, Perrin teases out episodes from Violette’s past, and we get to meet those from her present as well, including some who are buried next door. There are heart-breaking moments, being the wife of Philippe wasn’t easy.
Then, one day, a man turns up at the cemetery, a police chief from Marseilles, searching for a particular grave. Julien Seul plans to scatter the ashes of his late mother on the grave of a stranger, as she requested in her final wishes. Violette knows the grave of Gabriel Prudent well, she also keeps notes on all the funerals, so she is able to help with some information for the detective to work on. When Julien returns a few weeks later with the ashes, she notes that “since Philippe Toussaint’s disappearance, no man has made my heart beat a little faster.”
From these first meetings which both occur within the first forty pages, we begin to fervently hope that these two people will eventually get together. There are many obstacles other than distance to overcome, not least the fact that Violette has been happy on her own. Julien has more than the mystery of his mother’s last request to solve, as he seeks to get to know Violette gradually. Violette has deep secrets of her own which she’ll need to acknowledge and deal with too.
Violette is a brilliant narrator, a woman of outward calm and inner torrents of emotion, intensely romantic yet self-sufficient. She doesn’t suffer from any Gallic whimsy, she has a strong empathy without being sentimental that makes her such a fine confidante to those in need. Her story made me laugh and cry and the will-they, won’t-they romance builds throughout. Running parallel to that, we find out what happened to Philippe and the heart-break that was caused.
This isn’t a short novel at 474 pages in hardback, but within a few short chapters I was so involved with Violette’s life that the pages just flew by. The translation never jarred, which is just so. It was a joyous read with depth that I heartily recommend. (10/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you to Europa Editions UK. Valerie Perrin, Fresh Water for Flowers (Europa Editions, 2020) Hardback, 474 pages.
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