The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

This downright original book was recommended to me by a beloved friend who, when I asked her to describe it, struggled to find the words. In fact, she kept using contradictory language and that had me intrigued. Not only because someone who I admire for her use of language found it hard to put this novel into words, but also because those that she chose were binary opposites: beautiful/ugly; horrific/marvellous etc.

29981261Basically, the novel focuses on a young woman named Maya who is rescued from what’s clearly a protracted and shocking abusive environment by the FBI. From the outset, the reader is plunged into the first of many interviews between two agents, Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison and the frank and bold survivor of this abuse, Maya.

Kidnapped years earlier, Maya is one of many young women who find themselves trapped in what’s, aesthetically at least, a paradisial garden. Fed, clothed and cared for by a man they call “The Gardener”, the girls are given new names and tattooed with elaborate butterflies before being raped. From that point on, they’re expected to be at the brutal but also charming and considerate (in his eyes) man’s beck and call and that of his vicious son, Avery.

The story of the continued abuse and the relationships that develop between the girls unfolds slowly throughout the interviews with the agents as does Maya’s background.

While the tale itself is utterly awful, the writing – and the way Maya tells it to the FBI agents and the way her history and that of the other girls, as well as the awful fates some meet – is tragically lyrical, sometimes humorous and even, as odd and distasteful as it sounds, lovely. Not what The Gardener or his son do to the girls, but how they manage it – how Maya copes and the strategies she and the other butterflies put in place to simply survive and not be broken by the circumstances they find themselves in – even when they know the only way to escape the heavenly hell they find themselves in is to die.

Some of the girls have fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome; most, however, rely on each other for fortitude and friendship and that deep bond that arises through sharing tragedy and when hope is but a distant dream. It is this – the close attachments formed between the girls, the ways they use memories to sustain themselves and willingly adopt the identities given to protect their “real” selves that is both powerful, incredibly moving and beautiful.

I have never read a book quite like this and it’s hard to put down. I know it will haunt me for days. It has twists and turns, and operates much like a psychological thriller, but it’s also expressive and literary. I once described J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as the most wonderful book about the most awful people I have ever read. I think The Butterfly Farm is similar in that it is a mesmerising book that manages to be both poetic and dreamlike when it covers a subject (and introduces characters) that is the stuff of nightmares.

My friend was right to struggle to describe this book, and to use contrary words when she did. It is a contradiction, a powerful one that works so well and is very original. Four and half stars.

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Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

19553654Jar City is the second book in the Inspector Erlendur series (but the first with the inspector translated into English), that I’ve read as part of what’s swiftly turning into a Nordic noir/crime word-feast.

Set in Reykjavik, Iceland, the inspector is a 50-year-old, rather dour, no-nonsense person, divorced from his wife who cannot stand him and has done all in her power to ensure he has little to no relationship with his two now-adult children. In this book, his daughter, Eva Lind, a pregnant drug-addict, turns to her father for help but, in doing so, finds she receives as much as she gives. It’s in the scenes with his daughter that gentler but also contradictory aspects of the inspector’s personality (and past) are revealed.

Just as the personal life of the protagonist is exposed through hints, brief interior monologues and flashbacks (mainly through memory) of the past, likewise, the solution to the major crime being investigated, the murder of an old man in his apartment, seems to lie in actions taken decades earlier. Actions that while they held no consequences (at the time) for the criminal, resonated well beyond for the victims, affecting many lives, curtailing bright futures.

Bleak, like the last book in this series I read, the grey landscapes, constant rain and chill form a steady backdrop to the investigation. The pace is steady, unfurling almost reluctantly, but keeping the reader gripped at all times. Rape, genetic diseases, secrets, lies, bureaucracy, abuse of power, the ambiguous push and pull of family, terrible brutality and arrogance all feature in this book. The characters are all so well drawn, complex, flawed and yet relatable. Motivations are apparent, people’s guilt and desires clear.

Despite the fact barely anyone is willing to aid the investigation, preferring to keep knowledge to themselves, leave dark secrets buried, or choosing to be laconic when questioned, thwarting the inspector and his partner’s efforts, suspense builds until the perpetrator is revealed, past and present collide and dreadful inevitability rears its head.

A clever, well-written book that anyone who enjoys a good crime novel, with an intricate plot and characters that ring true will thoroughly appreciate.

 

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