Heart of Darkness

Sunday, October 7, 2007

THE SOUND OF BUTTERFLIES

By Rachael King

Morrow. 338 pp. $24.95

Coffee, cork, cotton and more: If we stopped to think about the origins and labor involved in harvesting our quotidian raw materials, we might find ourselves sitting mutely in a darkened corner, lost in a funk of guilt, shame and indecision.

That's how we find young Englishman Thomas Edgar, the protagonist of Rachael King's novel The Sound of Butterflies. Recently returned home from a long expedition to the Amazon (in search of butterflies), Edgar now haunts his parlor, refusing or unable to speak to his young, adoring wife, Sophie.

It's easy to assume that the author wants to examine those old colonial obsessions: civilizing foreign natives and pillaging their lands for flora and fauna. At first, King's novel appears to be an intriguing but slight historical mystery: Will Edgar ever speak again? Will Sophie leave him and run to the arms of an accommodating military captain? Will the rare Papilio sophia specimen be found in Edgar's collecting trunks?

But King, who won the New Zealand Society of Authors award for best first novel, is after more serious things. She quietly skewers the refined British naturalist for a variety of failings -- everything from his squeamishness about insects to his willingness to ignore a colleague's pedophilia. But her mesmerizing combination of narrative, diary pages and letters reveals the true terror that Edgar experienced in the Amazon, where he witnessed one man's inhumanity to his own people.

The raw material at the center of this evil enterprise is rubber. We may not use it as much as we once did, but think of its 20th-century dominance: tires for motorcars, airplanes and tanks; elastic for girdles that replaced whaleboned corsets; and pencil erasers and rubber bands for the kind of office work occasioned by wars and global expansion. The man sponsoring Edgar's expedition is Mr. Santos, whose rubber harvests have allowed him to build the city of Manaus, a jungle-bound copy of great European capitals, where mimicry of genteel habits overlays a sinister enterprise.

King's book has flaws: Sophie's progressive best friend is a lively character with too little to do, and a side plot involving the accommodating military captain and Sophie's father goes nowhere. However, these are small irregularities in a captivating story.

-- Bethanne Patrick writes the Book Maven blog for Publishers Weekly.


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