The Sound of Butterflies is a horror story. Rachael King has written a trip into the heart of darkness that is relentlessly and increasingly horrific as a group of fin de siecle collectors travel up the Amazon to Manaus and beyond. As they journey, their experience grows more disjointed and they fall deeper under the influence of a decadent and ruthless rubber baron. Santos, the sickeningly wealthy rubber baron, is the sort of maniac who grew up pulling the wings off flies and setting fire to cats. He toys with a botanist, a doctor, a lepidopterist and a zoologist and he tortures indigenous people who work for him as virtual slaves. It is seriously creepy.
At home in England, Sophie, the wife of amateur butterfly collector Thomas Edgar, harbors escalating fears as letters from her husband slow and cease. She enjoys a flirtation with an attentive acquaintance without troubling too much about the consequences and spends time with her irrepressible friend Agatha, a young woman who delights in ignoring convention. Then Thomas arrives home abruptly and her cozy little world is destroyed. He seems absent from his own eyes and he refuses to speak. The crates of specimens he has collected sit, unopened, and nothing Sophie can do cracks the impenetrable shell around him. Sophie’s story alternates with letters from Thomas and accounts of his adventures in the towns at the mouth of the Amazon and farther upstream, where exotic specimens diminish and clues to depravity explode.
Thomas has set out to find a rumored yellow and black butterfly, as large as a spread hand, with impossible markings. It is his dream to discover the first specimen and to name it after his beloved wife and win for himself respect and lasting acclaim. Instead he finds the rough and real world–strong caffeine, imported spirits and local moonshine, hallucinatory drugs, hotbeds of prostitution, and human frailty–his own. He is kind of an unsympathetic jerk for a long while–innocent baby adrift in the wicked world with no defenses. Really, who could care what happens to someone so hapless? Sophie, caught in her doubts at home and later caught in the mystery of her stranger-husband, is marginally better but these two are like children, playing at marriage and life.
Eventually, Sophie forces Thomas’ hand and the terrible secrets of the jungle are revealed. No surprise that he was no match for any of it but a nice surprise that he has more mettle than I first suspected. Sophie, too, so all is not lost, although many lives are and so are some valuable specimens and all of innocence. The Sound of Butterflies (not a good name–too predictable, cliche or something) is fluently written and contains an entire ecosystem of rich description that brings the Amazon basin, its exotica and its human monsters alive. I can recommend it if you are unfamiliar with the rigors of rain forests, the perilous and poisonous encounters that confront the unwary visitor, and the protocols for collecting specimens to donate to British museums, sell to private collectors and opine about in scholarly societies and scientific clubs. But it’s definitely a horror story so beware of its treacherous webs if you decide to dip into it late at night.
The Sound of Butterflies Rachael King | William Morrow 2006