The mark of enduring fiction comes after the last page is turned. It’s when the reader’s mind keeps returning to the characters because they have become cherished friends.
Violette Toussaint is one such character. A foundling, as a child she forever tried to be good so a foster family would love her. She finally found that unconditional love in her daughter, Leonine, but never in her disastrous marriage to Philippe.
The novel roams back and forth in time and character point of view, so there is a long wait to find out what actually happened to Leonine and how such a complexity of characters and circumstances contributed to her loss.
At the beginning of their marriage Philippe and Violette are level crossing guards. They live by the train schedule as they must manually lower the barrier to prevent cars from crossing the tracks in front of trains. In reality, Violette does all the work and Philippe rides away on his motorcycle to mistresses far and wide.
When their level crossing is the very last one in France to be updated to automatic closure, Philippe and Violette must look for another source of income. At that point Leonine is no longer with them.
Violette finds the perfect job for them complete with a cottage. Philippe reluctantly accompanies her to become the cemetery keepers at Brancion-en-Chalon cemetery in Burgundy. It’s the perfect place for Violette as she throws herself into it. She keeps meticulous records of every funeral, the testimonies, those in attendance and the weather. She cares for each grave, planting trees and flowers and welcoming visitors with tea and cakes or something stronger if required.
As the story opens Violette has been the cemetery keeper for 20 years and Philippe has been a missing person of interest for 19 years. Her job has brought her satisfaction and happiness.
“I smooth rose cream over my hands. I spend hours with my fingers in the earth, gardening. I have to protect them. I like to have lovely hands. It’s been years now since I stopped biting my nails.”
Violette explains in detail her gardening duties.
“In April, I put ladybird larvae on my rosebushes, and on those of the deceased, to combat greenfly. I’m the one who places the ladybirds, one by one, with a little paintbrush, on the plants. It’s as though I repainted my garden in the spring. As if I planted stairways between earth and sky. I don’t believe in phantoms or ghosts, but I do believe in ladybirds….Placing my ladybirds, one by one, keeps me busy for ten days, if I do only that. If there’s no funeral in the meantime. Putting them on the rosebushes feels like opening the doors to the sun, letting it in over my cemetery. It’s like giving it permission. A permit. That doesn’t stop anyone from dying during the month of April, or from visiting me.”
Violette has a quirky side. She is not above donning a sheet and riding a unicycle through the night to scare the wits out of teenagers drinking beer on her premises. She wears dark clothes on the outside and beautiful bright clothes underneath. In the face of life’s tragedies she is a joyful person.
“Life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage..”
At the end of this beautiful novel I am seriously considering becoming a cemetery keeper.