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by Tatiana de Rosnay
St. Martin's Press, February 2021
256 pages
ISBN: 1250272556

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Flowers of Darkness seems to have been plotted as two books only tangentially related. On the one hand, we have an elderly Parisian writer, Clarissa, struggling through a very creepy experience in her new apartment. On the other, we have the story of loss and grief that is her past. She recently decided to leave her second husband after discovering his infidelity so she needed a new apartment, and that is the connection. The story of her past is interwoven through the near-future science fiction of the story of her apartment.

The apartment is a modern penthouse with artificial intelligence taking care of all details. Everything hums along beautifully, although Clarissa comes to believe that the cameras are being monitored for some nefarious purpose and that she and other residents are being manipulated in the interest of scientific research. Both the landscape and the climate have changed dramatically in Paris after terrorist attacks and overuse of fossil fuels, and humans are supported and surrounded by robots. While many of the residents in the apartment building accept the ways in which modern technology has taken over the management of their lives, a few of the residents share Clarissa’s sense of unease. As Clarissa becomes more and more disturbed by events in the building, she enlists the help of her granddaughter to investigate what is actually going on.

From this point on, this present-day thread of the plot becomes increasingly surreal until neither Clarissa nor the reader is sure what is happening. Flashbacks take us to the other story line, in which we learn about Clarissa’s first and second marriage and her relationships with other family members. There’s a shocking bit about her second husband that makes it clear why she had to leave him but a slower burn of a story about the end of her first marriage. She is still connected to Toby, her first husband, and continues to rely upon him as she makes every effort to avoid her second husband, François. This is a more literary, grounded plot that asks us to think about the nature of love, loss, and grief.

There are elements of a mystery here, though not a murder mystery. As readers, we experience Clarissa’s confusion as she attempts to make sense of the building’s purpose, determine who is behind it, and reach safety. And we follow her into her past investigation of François, attempting to find a different type of safety. Many of the scenes that take place in her apartment are suffused with menace, making parts of this book into a suspenseful thriller. But the book is also clearly science fiction, and it at least strives to be literary.

To de Rosnay, plot is not as important as ideas, and in the end she drops many plot elements without resolution. After the very tense moments earlier on, the ending of Flowers of Darkness felt like a huge letdown. There is much to think about in this book and it moves very quickly but, in the end, it does not hang together well.

If you like your reading to make you uncomfortable, you will appreciate this more than if you like a strong plot with a solid resolution. For me, Flowers of Darkness fell somewhere in middle ground.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, March 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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