Translated from the French, this is Perrin’s second novel. Violette, abandoned as a baby and raised in foster homes, at 17 meets the love of her life Philippe Toussaint. By 18 she is pregnant with their daughter Leoninine and living with him. He is feckless, parasitical, controlling and an irredeemable adulterer. She will work to support them all as he wanders his way through life. In the early stages of her relationship “they” work as railway crossing keepers, a job that will become obsolete. Shortly before this Violette’s in-laws will insist that Leo, by then 7, attend a holiday centre. She and other children will die. Violette will carry her grief for the rest of her life. Philippe will be intent on finding the person “responsible”. But Violette needs to work and once their railway jobs are deleted “they” will be employed this time as residential as cemetery keepers. Philippe will become more and more absent. Through an interweaving of chapters the phases of their lives will be unveiled from start of their relationship to the final end more than 25 years later.
We will be told in detail of Violette’s life as she rebuilds it in “her” cemetery. The daily routines and occurrences with her colleagues, the animals, the funerals the residents and their visitors. All this set in parallel to her recovery from the loss of her daughter and later from Philippe. We see a woman (who has persuaded herself she is emotionally awkward and of little value) through small accumulative but simple actions and routines build a network of new friendships and a positive life through giving to others. Although this will be complicated by the re-appearances (increasingly rare) of Philippe who has established a new life elsewhere.
She starts to keep records of the funerals in her cemetery. Among others, Gabriel Prudent will be buried in the cemetery – and over the years Violette will become aware that he had a lover, Irene Fayrolle. When Irene dies her ashes are to be placed on the tomb. Her son Julien, a detective, is required to undertake this and meets Violette. She helps with his funeral oration to his mother and he shows her his mother’s diary recording her married life through the lens of the highs and lows of having a married lover. Julien, as thanks, searches out Philippe and trips off another family crisis. But will become closer to Violette.
This is a compelling novel that through the storyline addresses the deeper issues of both love and marriages, which do not of course always travel together. It is about personal lives, often viewed differently through another’s eyes. It is about moving forward either as a couple or indeed alone. And critically always trying to build a good life with quiet webs of kindness and friendship even if things are not ideal. So it could be described as a “quiet” book, although it touches on the deepest aspects of human life and happiness. Carelessness to others can cause deep harm to them, but seemingly simple acts can be life affirming and of huge value to others – so the exploration of this makes it a compassionate and moral book. There are a lot of characters gathered here – Perrin is sympathetic to them all recognising human weaknesses. Not all are depicted in great detail and may be seen largely through their actions that can gradually change the readers’ views of them. But because they are real people they resonate with the reader. A quietly positive read.
Hilary White 5/5
Fresh Water For Flowers by Valerie Perrin
Europa Editions 9781787702202 pbk Jun 2020