This book is remarkable. What a pleasure to read such a book at the end of the year, as we prepare to say goodbye to the old year and start again. A novel that is about death is really about new beginnings. This book is about starting again, and grieving, and forgiveness, and … I’m getting ahead of myself.
Violette Trenet, married name Toussaint, is a caretaker in a cemetery in Bourgogne, France. The novel, translated with such eloquence by Hildgard Serle, uses the most beautiful prose to tell the story of Violette. Be warned, hers is not an easy story. We learn early in the novel that she was orphaned at birth, through circumstances perpetually unknown to her, and never adopted. As a young girl, she meets her fate while bartending – his name is Philippe Toussaint – he’s wealthy, beautiful, and for a while, entirely consumed by her. All this happens in the early 1980s, although the present timeline of the story is in 2017. Through alternating timelines, we learn more about how Violette came to be the caretaker in this cemetery, with plenty of pets, three gravediggers, and a priest for her primary company. Violette of 2017 isn’t exactly unhappy, but she seems to be floating somewhere just outside of her life. Through both backstory and an intriguing side story involving another family’s history the story blossoms, transforming again and again into something powerful.
Early in the novel we learn that Violette and Philippe, despite a seeming unhappy union (and his abandonment of his wife, which doesn’t exactly make her unhappy), had a child that is notably absent from the 2017 timeline – thus, while nothing is graphic, content warnings about the loss of a child apply. A large part of the book is about solving a mystery related to their child, and in fact through solving that mystery there are so many complex answers. No one is quite what they seem to be. This is a gentle novel about finding joy and even love after heartbreaking loss. This isn’t a book packed with plot – definitely pick this one up for the characters. And yet, there was enough happening to keep me intrigued about what might happen next, and certainly moments that held the sort of dramatic tension that elicits an “ah!” or two. I loved this one, I recommend it highly.