A Life in Bloom Among the Dead
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This book was written in French by Valerie Perrin, and translated by Hildegarde Serle. I found its opening quite compelling:
“My closest neighbors 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 don’t read, don’t pay taxes, don’t go on diets, don’t have preferences, don’t change their minds, don’t make their beds, don’t smoke, don’t write lists, don’t count to ten before speaking. They have no one to stand in for them.”
The list of things her neighbors do not have and do not do continues for another paragraph until finally we learned why they are this way: “They’re dead. The only difference between them is in the wood of their coffins: oak, pine, or mahogany.”
Thus, we enter the world of Violette Toussaint, who has been the caretaker at the Brancion-en-Chalon cemetery in Bourgogne for the last twenty years. Her world is populated by lots of love stories featuring the dead and the living, not to mention her playboy husband. It contains two mysteries needing to be solved, one devastating heartbreak, three undertakers, three grave diggers, and one priest.
Up until she landed the job at the cemetery, Violette’s life was unenviable. Starting from her birth!
“When I was born, I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67 kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival. Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname. The midwife quickly had to come up with a first name for me, to fill in the boxes; she chose Violette. That’s probably the color I was from head to toe. They’d put me on a radiator. My skin had warmed up. The belly of my mother who didn’t want me must have chilled me. The warmth brought me back to life.”
From there she was in foster care. She then got married at seventeen to Philippe Toussaint, a handsome man ten years her senior. He was allergic to work – much preferring playing video games – so the jobs they held together, found her doing all the work alone. First, they were “Level Crossing Keepers.” They (she) lowered and raised a barrier for trains fifteen times a day between 4:50 AM and 11:04 PM. When that job got automated, “they” took the job in the cemetery. After a time, he simply disappeared.
I have mentioned that there are lots of love stories, two mysteries, and one devastating heartbreak in the book. Let’s talk about those.
- Oddly, the disappearance of Phillipe is not really one of the mysteries since Violette is so much better off without him. Instead..
- A man named Julien Seul comes to Violette’s cemetery stating that his newly deceased mother, Irene Fayolle, requested that instead of being buried with her husband in some other cemetery, that she be interred with a man named Gabriel Prudent whose remains are in Violette’s cemetery. Julien, a detective, aims to find out what that’s all about.
- And then there is the devastating heartbreak that occurs while Violette and Philippe are still Level Crossing Keepers. They had a daughter – Leonine, a.k.a. Catherine (huh?!) – and something happened to her. It takes a long time to find out what. One of the few redeeming features of Philippe is that he is the one who looks into that.
- Through all of this, many love stories evolve – both romantic and non. It is especially heartwarming to see Violette find a supportive female friend, a wonderful male mentor, and more. This all added to a life in bloom for Violette, even as she lived among the dead.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but rooted for something to happen that did not. There was the opportunity for one character to murder two despicable characters – referred to as “two gherkins in a jar of vinegar” – but that did not come to pass. Darn! Otherwise, this is a darn good book and I recommend it.
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