Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is a beautifully written book, if unconventional. Its message is very eloquent: namely, just what is mankind doing to its native planet? The anger the author feels is first expressed as mere irritation but it grows, until the very end of the book where a powerful rant expresses immense reservation at the human condition. Here he speaks of a glass cathedral.
This is a book that is best sampled. The reader needs to go back and forth through the text exploring an appreciation rather than reading the narrative front to back. You find yourself reviewing what has just been said in the context of what had been previously intimated. A book needs to challenge and this does. Barrett’s seeming obsession with Luton fascinated this reviewer, not least because an ancestor was born in the Luton Union Workhouse during the Hungry Forties when times were similarly very hard. Mind you, Luton would benefit greatly from a glass cathedral.
By far the best piece of writing appears under the title `Empty Heaven’. This is arguably a brilliant imaginative construction of a near-future dystopia. It rings horribly true. Soon human bio-engineering will have reached an optimum. A man wants to die but can’t. He commits multiple suicides but each time is brought back to life because his medical insurance requires medical science to enable it. A clear demonstration that what may seem perfection to some is a nightmare for others.
An acquaintance argues that a writer should always set their novel in an exotic place as then they have to visit it. Barrett seems to have gone to the Peruvian part of the Amazon rainforest or, to be precise, the Pacaya Samina National Reserve. Here Moises Quispe, a young orphan seeks the Black Butterfly. Folk tradition declares that Yana Wawa was an Andean mountain spirit that descended to the jungle thousands of years ago. As a consequence, she must serve the trees until they have all fallen. The background of Moises’ search is the gradual deforestation of this unique landscape.
The story opens when the prize for capturing the Black Butterfly is a million units of new money. Young Moises searches for it among the loggers, police rangers, river taxis, foreign tourists and a closet rapist from Luton. Eventually he finds the Black Butterfly, mounting it on a board to study it under a microscope. It is then he discovers the vast acres of stories printed on its wings. Some read these stories, many don’t. Perhaps you only see what you want to find.
The stories, or are they dreams are variable. They all have a moral within the wider context of the book. However, coming from an older, more artisan story-telling tradition where the tale-teller ensures the reader gets the point, these are strictly post-modern in style requiring that the story be re-read in order to fully grasp its rationale. This may well be good artistic taste, but is it commercial?
In one story a couple of images escape from a painting in Vitebsk, Belarus, but find they are no longer loved in this world. They return into paint under a park bench in Moscow. In another an old woman planting her garden in Luton finds a warm electric stick. This is an exercise in what can happen when you overlook what does not fit into known science. Then a man and a woman embrace in a meadow making a pie-crust promise. Easily made, easily broken! This is the man’s `Lovelyday’ purchase which lasts all of ten hours.
Then there is the promotion company that will make you famous. Once hired they set out to murder you horribly. At least you get into the papers! They are followed by the Emerald Earth charity that buys street children from orphanages. The pub where the living and the dead meet is to be closed as nobody is sure who is alive and who is dead. We are then told that there are so many people that nature is running out of ideas. The age of the multi-vidual is upon us!
Lastly, a Church of the Black Butterfly develops as the human rejection of God. Feuerbach, where are you? The appearance of the Black Butterfly is Mother Nature warning mankind of the damage being done to the Earth. You know it won’t end well.
The only quibble is on Page 192 when it is asserted that the world population of humans will be ten million by 2060. I think they mean ten billion, but what’s a few billion between friends? As I have said, this is a challenging book, some will find it difficult. Others will love the imagination at play!