Postwar: Valérie Perrin, Fresh Water for Flowers

perrinAnd then, just like the cemetery cats, the sun reached as far as my room, reached under my sheets. I opened the curtains, and then the windows. I went back downstairs to the kitchen, boiled the water for the tea, and aired the room. I finally returned to the garden. Finally gave fresh water to the flowers. I welcomed the families once again, served them something hot and strong to drink.

I didn’t know when I began it that Fresh Water for Flowers is a novel about a bereaved mother. I did know that it was about a cemetery keeper, so I expected it to be about death, which it certainly is. “My close neighbors,” it begins,

don’t quake in their boots. They have no worries, don’t fall in love, don’t bite their nails, don’t believe in chance, make no promises, or noise, don’t have social security, don’t cry, don’t search for their keys, their glasses, the remote control, their children, happiness . . . They’re dead. The only difference between them is in the wood of their coffins: oak, pine, or mahogany.

That voice—wry, incisive, self-aware, equal parts droll and melancholy—belongs to Violette Toussaint, who narrates most of Fresh Water for Flowers. She’s the reason the novel is neither depressing nor sentimental (though it is often heartbreaking and sometimes romantic): Violette is too careful, too private, for overt or self-indulgent displays of emotion. She speaks like she dresses: winter outside (“classic, somber clothes, for the eyes of others”), summer underneath (“light, colorful clothes meant only for me”), “nothing to do with the seasons, but rather the circumstances.”

perrin2It isn’t that Violette isn’t warm or compassionate: reflecting on the demands of her strange job, which include assisting and often comforting those who come to bury or visit their loved ones in the cemetery she oversees, she says “for a woman like me, not feeling compassion would be like being an astronaut, a surgeon, a volcanologist, or a geneticist. Not part of my planet. Or my skill set.” She has been “destroyed,” though, and as a result has retreated into herself, leaving love and happiness to others—until things change and she resolves that “unhappiness has to stop someday,” even unhappiness stemming from a grief as intense as hers for her dead daughter Léonine.

We don’t find out about her daughter’s death for some time (nearly a third of the novel). In the meantime we are getting to know Violette’s story, including about her marriage and her first job as a level-crossing keeper, raising and lowering the barriers as trains pass. The novel cuts back and forth between her past and her present, gradually moving us towards an explanation of how she came to be where she is  and also why she is there alone there, without her husband Philippe. One—perhaps the—crucial reason is that she moved to be closer to Léonine, but because the reason Léonine herself lies in the cemetery is a key plot point, the engine behind a lot of the developments and revelations of the novel, I will leave out the details.

perrin3As a cemetery keeper, Violette is surrounded by other people’s death and mourning: a connoisseur of funerals, she believes you can understand and maybe even judge someone’s life by the send-off they get.  She records every one in her notebook: the weather, the coffin, the flowers, the family and friends, the speeches. She knows her quiet neighbors’ birth and death dates and often much of the story of what came in between; she tends affectionately to their graves, watering, weeding, cleaning. Her work and thus the novel is a provocation to think about the many ways people live and then die. “Death,” as Violette observes

never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, nor public holidays, nor dentist appointments. . . . It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice the day it bites us. Or, worse, bites a loved one.

Violette herself has been badly bitten by Léonine’s death: this is what “destroyed” her. “Ever since my childhood,” she says to Léonine, who is no longer there, “I had never made a noise, so that I wouldn’t be abandoned anymore. I left yours, your childhood, screaming.” It takes her years to emerge from the absolute paralyzing devastation that follows. Her description of what comes next is one of the hardest, truest things I’ve read about carrying on after losing a child:

Yes, the war was drawing to a close. I sensed it. I would never recover from the death of my daughter, but the bombing had stopped. I would live through the postwar period. The longest, the hardest, the most pernicious. . . . You pick yourself up, and then find yourself face to face with a girl of her age. When the enemy has gone, and there’s nothing left but those who are left. Desolation. Empty cupboards. Photos that freeze her in childhood. All the others growing, even the trees, even the flowers, without her.

Later in the novel she runs through a litany of all the things that won’t happen:

You won’t put your teenage years behind you.
You won’t celebrate being twenty-five and still unmarried by St. Catherine’s Day.
You won’t dance any slow dances . . .
I won’t see your wrinkles and liver spots appearing, or your cellulite and stretch marks . . .
You’ll marry no one.

perrin-changerIt’s a long list, two pages, and even though it’s not Owen’s list, I couldn’t (can’t) stop crying as I read it, because it’s so true that part of what you are grieving is that future, the one you pour your hope, your effort, your time, your love, your heart into as a parent. Thankfully, Perrin avoids easy, inadequate clichés about consolation, the kind of implicit or explicit messages that hurt rather than help. There is no silver lining for Violette, though she finds a beautiful way to express the ways Léonine, absent forever, will stay present in her life:

You will grow up differently, in the love I will always have for you. You will grow up elsewhere, among the murmurs of the world, in the Mediterranean, in Sasha’s garden, in the flight of a bird, at daybreak, at nightfall, through a young girl I will meet by chance, in the foliage of a tree, in the prayer of a woman, in the tears of a man, in the light of a candle, you will be reborn later, one day, in the form of a flower or a little boy, to another mother, you will be everywhere my eyes come to rest. Wherever my heart resides, yours will continue to beat.

Taking over care of the cemetery where Léonine lies makes these continuing bonds literal, but there’s a risk that it also commits Violette to death rather than life. Fresh Water for Flowers is about her choosing otherwise, eventually, which happens because the mother of a man named Julien Seul asked for her ashes to be placed on the tomb of a man he, Julien, doesn’t know. Julien’s arrival at the cemetery is the instigating incident for much of the novel’s present-day plot; the story of Julien’s mother Irène becomes an almost co-equal part of the novel, woven through Violette’s narrative by the inclusion of Irène’s diary. Irène’s story is a love story, though not an unequivocally happy one; there’s also a kind of mystery plot, around the circumstances of Léonine’s death.

tulipsIn fact, there’s quite a lot going on in Fresh Water for Flowers, and although overall I really enjoyed the novel, I did wonder sometimes if it needed quite so many elements. Violette seemed like enough to me, although I suppose it would be harder to appreciate the journey she makes from death back to life without the rich ambience the novel provides, in which life and love and loss and death and humor and tragedy and pain and beauty are constantly mingling and the sheer variety of human character and experience is a recurrent motif. Every chapter begins with what I saw as epigraphs, but which are referred to in the discussion questions at the end of the novel as “epitaphs,” which surprised me and then made perfect sense, even though many of them are not quite the kind of thing you’d actually carve on a tombstone. It’s a novel that immerses us in death, but in the spirit of inviting us to think about life. Violette’s specific path from the darkness back into the light felt a bit pat to me, a bit too easy and romantic, but maybe that’s what novels are for, at least some of the time. In the book of life, after all, as the epigraph / epitaph for Chapter 5 reminds us,

when we want to return to the page on which we love, the page on which we die is already between our fingers.