October 2007

The Amazon’s terrible beauty

By Rachael King
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In May of 1904, when Thomas Edgar returns to England from his butterfly-collecting expedition to Brazil, his young wife Sophie expects that their happy life together will resume its familiar contented course. Instead, she is faced with a different man altogether, one whose eyes are colder, and who hardly acknowledges her. The Amazon can be a challenging place, the company agent tells her. I've heard of men losing their possessions, their faith, and their virtue. But I've never heard of anyone losing his ability to speak. In the mordantly magnetic The Sound of Butterflies, New Zealand author Rachael King rings all the changes on the theme of staid Englishmen exposed to the passions of the steamy jungle and its fire ants, jaguars, and piranhas, both human and animal. Thomas' almost sacred quest for a particularly beautiful and elusive butterfly sets up an unforgettably bittersweet story, with its elliptical search for meaning in a world where one kills the thing one loves, and the victim is silent.

King's jungle descriptions are masterful. (In fire-ant territory, always remember to keep your feet moving while standing still.) Her rippling prose builds to a wave of intrigue and danger as the narrative unfolds long-hidden revelations of steamy encounters and power plays in this godforsaken place of de facto slavery and disease. Thomas finds himself ineffectual in accomplishing the good things he yearns for, and helplessly conniving with the evil he abhors. Meanwhile, the cool counterweight of Sophie's story while Thomas is off exploring sets mild English village life against the major mayhem of the ruthless Amazonian rubber empire, headed by the pitiless rubber baron Jose Santos.

Does Thomas find his beloved dream, the Papilio sophia? That's left to the reader to decide. In the end, though, a battered butterfly does emerge amid the moths from Pandora's box. No doubt, the endless seductions of the Amazonian rainforest are as enchanting as they appear to be on these pages. Nevertheless, many readers, like this one, may well prefer to explore them from one's own comfortable easy chair.

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