Toward the end of Puccini’s tragic opera “Madame Butterfly,” U.S. Navy Lt. Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with an American wife. When Cio-Cio-san (Butterfly) realizes she will never reunite with him, she plunges a sword into her chest as their 3-year-old son plays outside in the garden. Music surges. Curtain down.
In her extraordinary new novel, “Butterfly’s Child,” Angela Davis-Gardner raises that curtain again to imagine the consequences of Cio-Cio-san’s suicide on her child, called Benji, and on Pinkerton and his wife, Kate, who agree to take the boy back to America with them.
Told in three parts, with an “Overture” and “Interlude,” the novel is operatic, but whereas Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” is filled with grand, sweeping gestures, Davis-Gardner’s story is told with detailed counterpoint and intricate embellishment.
“Butterfly’s Child” is set, like the opera, in the late 1890s, when an orphaned blond-haired, blue-eyed child such as Benji would be a mixed-breed outcast in Japan, living “in the back alleys of Maruyama picking through garbage, his face streaked with dirt.” But in Plum River, Ill., where he is relocated, he confronts plenty of bigotry and bullying, too, not to mention a new language, strange customs and confounding food, such as “the little green things that ran away from the stabber he had to use.” Told that Papa-san (Pinkerton) is not his real father, Benji soon discovers a photo sewn into his kimono (by his mother, he assumes) with Japanese writing on the back that he can’t decipher. The snapshot shows “Mama standing by a chair. Papa-san . . . sitting beside her, holding a watch.” Benji puts these pieces together, and with the photo as his compass, he vows to go back to Japan to find his mother’s family.
When pressed, Pinkerton finally tells Benji: “She was a geisha. . . . She was the daughter of a samurai — a brave warrior — and that means you come from good stock.” Kate, having had a miscarriage early in her marriage, tries hard to embrace her unexpected ward, who she knows is Pinkerton’s child. She teaches him English and tries not to resent him. But even after she gives birth to her own children, she feels that “her husband was in love with a dead woman, for whom she was only a substitute,” and she slowly becomes unhinged.
When a visiting suffragist who had traveled in Japan comes to town, Benji shows her the photograph with Japanese writing on the back, hoping she can translate it for him. She inadvertently lets a neighbor see the photo, which leads to an ugly public reaction that fuels Benji’s desire to return home.
His adventures in Part Two are a delightful and daring picaresque, filled with comic relief, sex and peril. Throughout the book, Davis-Gardner introduces chapters with dialogue from the libretto of Puccini’s opera, but a clever meta-joke enters the story when Pinkerton learns from a friend that “there seems to be an opera. . . . It’s in Chicago on the stage and all over. . . . Italy is where it started, apparently.”
“Someone had stolen his life,” Pinkerton laments to himself. “What had he done to deserve this?”
Benji’s voyage continues, but to give away any of the astonishing plot twists and revelations would deny the reader the thrill of a totally transforming and satisfying finale. Sometimes bold and gripping, often delicate and sensual, “Butterfly’s Child” is utterly unique and entirely enchanting.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, an arts administrator and founder of ClassicalGenie.com.
Dial. 332 pp. $26