Bleak Water by Danuta Reah
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s utterly magnificent sixteenth-century painting “Triumph of Death” sets the stage for Danuta Reah’s novel “Bleak Water”. Eliza Eliot is the curator of a gallery in Sheffield, U.K., where an exhibition of gruesome graphics work inspired by Bruegel’s masterpiece and entitled “The Triumph of Death” is about to open. Eliza is an ex-lover of the artist, Daniel Flynn, whom she met the year before, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The “art” plot is linked to events from four years before, when a young girl was found murdered. Another thread involves a thirteen year old girl, Kerry, her half-sister, and her father, who are all connected to that murder. There is also a police procedural thread, focusing on DCI Roy Farnham and DC Tina Barraclough investigating the murder of a young woman who lived in the building where the gallery is located, on the Sheffield Canal. All the bad, evil things going on in the plot are linked to the Canal (hence the title of the novel).
Ms. Reah handles the complex plot quite well, until the ending, which I find hopelessly contrived. It is supposed to tie all loose ends of the plot, but it does it at the expense of plausibility. The only other strength of the novel is that every single character is imperfect in some way; they all have something to be ashamed of, as we all do.
The atmosphere of the novel is dark, oppressive, and foreboding. A lot of the action happens at night, when people cannot hear and see clearly, and when one’s sense of safety is compromised and the feeling of danger heightened. The book is full of descriptions of lying awake and scared at night, hearing strange sounds, echoes, steps in the darkness, hushed whispers, and creaking floors. “Chills creep down the spine”, indistinct mumbles ooze from behind the walls, door handles suddenly turn, etc. I find these literary devices cheap, pretentious, and ineffective.
The major weakness of “Bleak Water” lies somewhere else, though. The novel tries to make a connection between death as portrayed by Bruegel and evil. There is no evil in “Triumph of Death”. As terrifying and haunting as it is, the painting is quite matter-of-fact. It clearly shows that death comes for everybody; it comes for kings, peasants, and beggars, and it may come at any time, when we are eating, sleeping, or making love. An artist character in the novel calls the Brueghel’s picture a “fifteenth-century video nasty”. Well, it is true only for people who do not get the picture’s main message – death is a part of the natural order of things. It is life that is connected to evil.
If you want to see a real work of art based on a Bruegel’s picture, see Lech Majewski’s 2011 movie “The Mill and the Cross”.
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