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Stamping Butterflies

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Victor Gollancz / Orion Books

UK Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-575-07613-5

Publication Date: 11-18-2004

390 Pages; £12.99

Date Reviewed: 12-19-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Science Fiction, General Fiction

02-14-02, 04-09-02, 04-22-02, 02-25-03

"One measures a circle beginning anywhere," Charles Fort tells us, and though this book is in many ways circular, it's best to begin at the beginning. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 'Stamping Butterflies' is an utterly entertaining enigma. Full of obsessively detailed descriptions of Marrakech in the 1970's, quantum foam, and more than one character who possesses an invisible but very real friend, 'Stamping Butterflies' is also a peculiar thriller about a lone nut with a rifle who attempts to assassinate the president. I've not yet even touched on the far-flung futuristic Dyson-sphere society based in part on the Forbidden City. And though it may sound as if I'm talking about different novels by entirely different writers, Grimwood's remarkable accomplishment is that he slots these fascinating pieces together in a compulsively readable single novel.

For all the vast expanses of time and space that Grimwood manages to visit in 'Stamping Butterflies', it's a compact novel that requires the reader's attention. This applies to all the text, including the chapter headings. Keep track of the dates and places that Grimwood is taking you, because this is a book where every word is important. As the novel begins, a "thin, grey-haired tramp" picks up a scrap of newspaper from under a table in Paris. It informs him that President Gene Newman is going to be the first president to visit Marrakech since Truman. The tramp decides that he must kill the President. In Marrakech in 1969, a young boy falls victim to a parasite that changes the way he thinks, the way he sees things. And in the Zigin Chéng, the Forbidden City at the heart of the 2023 worlds, the 53rd Emperor Chuang Tzu realizes an assassin is coming to take his life. Points on a circle. Let Jon Courtenay Grimwood connect the dots, and prepare to have your mind blown, quietly, with dense prose.

Grimwood's latest novel has many of the tics and textures found in his previous trilogy, the Arabesques -- 'Pashazade', 'Effendi' and 'Felaheen'. No writer since Edward Whittemore has written as perfectly about life in the Middle East. Grimwood's gritty and detailed prose evokes the sounds the smells, the sights and the emotions of those who live there. It's a beautifully immersive experience, and all the more so for being a big chunk of a novel of speculative fiction. The passages that describe Moz and Malika growing up in Marrakech anchor the novel firmly in a reality the reader cannot escape, even if the reader is at first wondering what the hell they have to do with the other segments of the story. It becomes clear; tragically, beautifully, shockingly clear.

Also returning from the Arabesques is the character who hears a voice the reader knows to be very real. That character is Prisoner Zero, whose failed attempt at killing the president results in his incarceration in a desert island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Prisoner Zero is the enigma at the center of the novel, and those sent to find out why he did what he did are embarking on a journey similar to the reader's journey. Unfortunately for them, they're not engaged in reading this gripping novel.

The new element that Grimwood unfurls in 'Stamping Butterflies' is the setting of the 2023 worlds. The Arabesques did not get out and about the universe, but Grimwood approaches the material with the same low-level, grain-of-sand detail that anchors the other parts of the novel. Readers do need to pay attention to the chapter headings and date sequencing here, and that's not easy or obvious. Grimwood supplies every bit of kit you need to put this puzzle together, and he makes the task entertainingly difficult. The story he's telling is complex and the characters carefully detailed. But there's not an ounce of fat in this novel. There's no excess. You need to consume every word, and when you do the experience unfolds magnificently.

For all the facets of this book, for all the puzzle making that Grimwood employs, he does offer substantial and early rewards. As the threads begin to interleave, Grimwood creates a mental reading experience that's utterly unique. The reader's feelings about this book, the reader's understanding of what's taking place, evolves in a way that's immensely pleasurable. 'Stamping Butterflies' is a science fiction mystery, but not in the sense of being a whodunit. The mystery the reader will need to solve in this novel is how and why the threads are intertwined.

This type of science fiction mystery is very hard to pull off unless you're a skilled writer, and Grimwood shows himself to be one of the best. As the stories unfold, he manages to incrementally increase our understanding of how they entwine without giving away the whole story until the final page. Grimwood's great prose, his compelling characters, and the gripping plot of the individual threads constantly reward the reader. But the overall sense of the whole story being told is engagingly elusive. As the individual stories coalesce, the pleasure the reader takes in the novel increases exponentially. It's a daring novelistic technique that requires and rewards patience. There's a literary skill on display here that is significant but not ostentatious. Grimwood's concept of what a novel can do and how it should go about doing it is quite complex, and his execution is flawless.

Only when the circle is complete will you know everything it encompasses. You'll measure the circle that is 'Stamping Butterflies' with a bit of work. This isn't a novel that's easily explained or experienced. Grimwood is a formidably skilled writer, and he rewards a skilled reader. The risks Grimwood takes are substantial. The rewards for the reader are even more so.