First published in 1996, The Butterfly’s Wing is an affecting and engaging novel about a relationship between two men, and what happens when an act of terrorism forces them apart. Andy, an officer in a world aid organization, is kidnapped and held hostage in Peru, leaving Tom alone in England, not knowing what is happening to his lover or if he will ever see him again.
The power of this story lies in the two voices that are telling it. Tom, who has been alone on their jointly-owned English smallholding for over a year now, tries to relieve his pain by starting a journal, in the form of a long letter to Andy. This device is wisely chosen by the author, for Tom, who has had a hardscrabble life moving from one waitering job to another, lives an existence that is centered on Andy, and the second-person narrative powerfully conveys his need:
Do you remember everything about me? My hair and the spots of my skin? Can you hear my voice? Do you remember holding me? Where your arm fits into my waist and your hand holds my head? And my nose and mouth in your neck, kissing you? Do you remember all that?
Elsewhere in the world, in a miserable cell where he doesn’t even have enough food or blankets, Andy at least has pen and paper, so he’s writing too. He’s a well educated man and his journal takes a more conventional form, though there is raw emotion there too:
This is hell. This is the hell I have seen others suffer, but I have always escaped. This is the hell of solitude and poverty and illness and pain. This is the hell of torture and famine and death. This is the hell of no hope, no fucking hope.
Perhaps now is the time to mention that reading this novel is no walk in the park. And yet, if that’s a downside to the book, it’s also part of the upside. There is nothing inauthentic in these pages. Martin Foreman has done important work in HIV in the developing world, and his grasp of world politics and economics convincingly informs Andy’s writing and his arguments with his captors. Just as tellingly, every detail of Tom’s life on a struggling farm seems real. To an important degree, this book and these lives have been lived by the author.
Tom and Andy also reflect on their lives as gay men. When Tom came out he was disowned by his family, while Andy met with only grudging acceptance from his parents. Tom and Andy are, in their own ways, amazed by the love they have found for each other. But there is nothing private in their world, and when the media “break” the news that Andy is gay and has a lover waiting for him at home, the new angle to their story has the potential to harm them both. Will Tom’s sexuality gain him ill favor among those who would otherwise help him in his search for Andy? Will Andy’s captors kill or torture him because he is gay?
I will say nothing about the ending of the novel except to note that it has one, and that it is up to each reader to decide whether or not the resolution is satisfactory. But no one will be able to read this book and remain unmoved.
Andy is familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and invokes those names in his journal. I would add Malcolm Lowry to the short list of fiction writers who have painstakingly explored the intersection of the political and the personal, seeking those profound moments when something as slight as the stir of a butterfly’s wing changes lives on the opposite side of the world. Oh, and add Martin Foreman’s name to the list, also: he has earned it.
Reviewed by Wayne Courtois