Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Sound of Butterflies?

It's intriguing to begin reading a novel whose title seems so paradoxical: The Sound of Butterflies. In all my young days chasing butterflies among the wildflowers, the butterflies never once made a sound. They weren't like moths at the window or the buzzy bees, nor chirping birds or the wind through the trees. Not even close. In fact, their silence added to their mystique and beauty.

"Dear Sophie, We have finally reached Manaus and are now being accommodated at the home of Mr. Santos --- a man who has so far proved to be full of surprises, as has the city itself."

Sophie eagerly gets this letter from her young husband, Thomas Edgar. She's in England at home, and he's in Brazil, finishing an expedition to collect, well, butterflies --- ahem, more precisely, to collect especially an elusive butterfly, a unique out-of-balance one. One he can name after her. It's 1905.

So begins The Sound of Butterflies, a debut novel by Rachel King. We are introduced right off to the beautiful, but frail protagonist, Sophie, her love interest and young, naïve husband, Thomas, and their creepy adversary, Mr. Santos. And it seems somehow each of these characters represents more than just themselves. Where are you in them? Where are any of us? For me, it is there but remains like the notion of the sound of butterflies vague.

It's compelling to have an exotic and historical setting. In this case, it's the gratuitously exploited wilds of Brazil over against the stilted, self-righteous England of the early 20th-century.

So King gives us this nice recipe up front and then puts it together and cooks it. But whatever it was supposed to be, it burned and lost most of its taste for me. Thomas returns. Or does he? He is bruised and beaten, torn and broken, but, most of all, mute and irresolute. The narrative mixes it, moving back and forth between England in the present and Brazil in Thomas's past, as Sophie and the readers slowly discover what is happening and what has happened to Thomas. And, it seems, Thomas comes around and so does Sophie. But then, I found myself wondering just what had happened on the macro scale? It has to have been more than just the story of Sophie finding out about Thomas and Thomas finding out about himself. A single butterfly doesn't make a sound, does it? Throughout, I couldn't help but wonder about the sound of butterflies, what it might mean, what it might represent.

A cloud of yellow and black rose before him like a small tornado, and a faint noise went with it--a rustling, like leaves caught by a wind on an autumn morning, or the shuffle of tissue paper on a desk. The butterflies made a round in the stillness; he had never expected to hear it. The cloud dispersed, joining mates on tree branches that bent under their collective weight. Each specimen was as large as his outstretched hand.

This central image didn't work for me. A small tornado with a faint noise? No! Rustling like leaves caught by a wind in autumn. Perhaps a little closer. The shuffle of tissue paper on a desk? Not in my experience. And even if these analogies did work, what does it all mean? What's its connection to the overall story? To not only our characters but to the world around them? Swirling in my mind is a notion that it is all somehow related to the oppressed and exploited masses, whether in England or in Brazil. Such can make about as much sound as a collective of butterflies deep in the jungle.

Like Thomas, I came up somewhat empty-handed.

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