The Sound of Butterflies
Harper Perennial (2008)
Trade Paperback 338 pgs.
This story takes place in 1903-4, during the late Victorian times in England and the rubber boom in Brazil. Natural sciences were at a peak and new discoveries were a tremendous prize. Sophie is excited about the return of her husband Thomas from the Amazon, where he has spent months collecting butterfly specimens. His greatest hope was to catch the rumored but as yet undiscovered species of butterfly known for having one yellow and one black wing. He was to name it Papilio sophia, after his wife.
When Sophie meets him at the train station, she finds her husband gaunt, unresponsive, and mute. He is a broken man. Instead of abandoning him to an institution, a popular way Victorians rid themselves of troublesome spouses, she is determined to help. What happened to Thomas in the Amazon ? Through mysterious companions, seemingly omnipresent insects, and the lure of opium, we find a jungle full of secrets; but none so dark as those lurking in the hearts of men. After witnessing and experiencing their horrors, Thomas decides to take a little mental vacation from reality. Bah-bye now.
This is Racheal King’s debut novel and it is good. Really good. It is part historical fiction, part cautionary tale. The story has a riveting plot and descriptions of butterflies, the jungle, and it’s wildlife are quite beautiful. She has excellent skills in imagery and expertly uses my personal favorite, symbolism.
Rivers are a metaphor for life journeys. The Amazon is a particularly dangerous one and Thomas is is ill prepared for where it leads. Butterflies have long been used as a symbol for new life, joy, and innocence. Both Thomas and Sophie start out that way. The married couple of only two years love each other deeply and are devout Christians. A lovely image of their love was one day when Sophie came upon Thomas praying in the chapel. As she watched, he opened his praying hands and a red butterfly flew out and up to the ceiling.
But innocence can be destroyed. The butterfly flits about seemingly out of reach but can be enticed by bait. Thomas falls into a nasty trap. The worse things got, the more he took that “I can fix this” attitude. But the more the fly struggles in the web, the more entangled it becomes. The illusory Papilio sophia with the mismatched wings will never be in balance. On the homefront, Sophie’s marriage is threatened by a spider who wants her in his own web.
Some reviewers were reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For me it was Elmer Gantry and his journey from faith to hypocrisy. Elmer was a more-than-willing, almost greedy participant in his own moral destruction. I will not say which character(s) he mirrors in The Sound of Butterflies. Sadly, but I guess not surprisingly, one of them is based on a real person.
Though not for the faint of heart, this book is highly recommended. So take a trip through the jungles if you dare. You never know what is waiting there to eat you.