Butterfly in Amber
by Kenneth Radu
a review by Mark McCawley
“The sole lingering on her tongue, followed by a sip of Sauterne, she let a wisp of doubt pass through her mind again. Without money, would Yves ever have made love to her? At least after the first time a few years ago when she was closer to fifty and perhaps layered with that mature redolent sensuality men claimed to see in women of a certain age?”
~ Kenneth Radu, Butterfly in Amber, p.20
Delia, an independent-minded Montreal woman of sixty and sexually experienced, is the heroine of Kenneth Radu’s novel from Quebec’s DC Books, Butterfly in Amber. The novel begins with Delia departing a liaison with her married lover, Yves, to go on a cruise along the Volga where she enters into a forbidden but lustful and satisfying liaison with Kostya, a twentysomething member of the ship’s crew. The trip along the Volga, itself, becomes an allegory for memory, identity, the inexorable passing of time, and the desire to be more in imagination than in actuality. Whether it be her liaison with Yves, or Kostya, Delia knows that sex and money are interchangeable as she is treated by both men as a sexual and financial ATM: “Delia had no intention of letting the body control her heart or mind. Gracious, a boy in bed was one thing, not that Yves was a boy despite puerile tendencies like fits of temper and sulking she had learned to soothe by dollars and talking dirty, but commitment to a man with his hands and other appendage out – sooner or later she paid – was quite another” (Butterfly in Amber, p. 25).
“After Yves’s hard and vigorous lovemaking, although he preferred to call it something else that one read on toilet walls and insisted she do the same, Delia woke up with aches, pains and sore nipples. She couldn’t remember if the climatic peak had been worth the climb to get there.”
~ Kenneth Radu, Butterfly in Amber, p. 25
Another character with possible sexual designs on Delia is the well conceived, quite possibly lunatic Frank — “a limp kind of rabbity man over whom no sturdy male need feel the slightest sexual jealousy” (Butterfly in Amber, p. 40) — an elderly gentleman who believes himself to be the son of the murdered Tsarevitch Alexis. “What a tiresome old man Frank could be; what a nuisance these old goats. Oh, leave me alone, she wanted to scream, and now she had to escape his offer of a taxi ride to the boat” (Butterfly in Amber, p. 90).
Indeed, the Frank character is the antithesis of Delia; the notion of inauthentic lives, submitting one’s identity for approval to a social group or religious system is fundamental to Butterfly in Amber. Frank’s character is indubitably the consequence of a failed life, receding so much into the past that he becomes indistinguishable from it and falls into the trap of believing in his own self-constructed mythology. Any authentic individual such as Delia would see him as a “a pretender,” an obnoxious “wannabe” expropriating the drama of other lives to compensate for the emptiness of his own. The other women on the cruise, attracted to the persuasive manner Frank tells his tales, are also victims to celebrity culture and view him as an exotic celebrity, an effective actor permanently on stage, living a life of illusions and falsifications. Delia, of course, recoils instinctively from him, not merely because of his age and essential inauthenticity, but from his female audience as well, including Krystal:
““Where are you sitting, Krystal?”
“Oh, I’m in the front with the rest of the gang. We don’t want to miss a word. Frank is such a compelling speaker and his story is fascinating, don’t you think? Come sit with us.”
Her taut skin led Delia to think of an embalmed body lying in a coffin, the face of the corpse rendered into the grotesque flatness of a mannequin by stagey cosmetics.”
~ Kenneth Radu, Butterfly in Amber, p. 43
For the most part, Butterfly in Amber is a novel about choices, sex, living an authentic life, the courage to act according to one’s desires, consequences be damned:
“She was willing to commit a kind of sacrilege, not against God since she did not believe, but against the religious traditions of an ancient country. If she believed at all, the god of her making would never forbid ecstasy even on the most sacred grounds.
Oh, yes, just as Puritan divines, Islamic mullahs, and Catholic priests, and all the rest fashioned a god after their own dogma, so she, too, would conceive of a god to justify hers. But why speak of God at all when the flesh overrode matters of spirit and yielded to
the young man’s insistent tongue. Kostya knelt as if in adoration of her aging brown-spotted flesh, probed the heart of her willing softness, his tongue a streak of fire. He blazed. . . the fierce temerity of a saint. Well, she had surfeited her eyes with icons and disapproving saints, martyrs to their own passions, and now her nerves singing to his play, she pictured Kostya in saintly illumination, ministering to her needs on the sun drenched roof.
“Oh, Kostya, what are you doing? Not here, not here, are you mad?”
She had almost toppled over his head of curls, his withdrawal of the tongue a shock to her yearning and turning nerves. Quickly standing, speaking in a garbled Russian, he unzipped his trousers and liberated his cock, bringing her hand to grasp it as she hurried out of her panties. Stunning and firm, a strange appendage that provided so much joy. Filling her hand, a silky hardness, slippery and pulsing warm to her equally warm touch. No time to think about sagging and dropping and dryness and desirability. He desired, he took, she gave. What more mattered this moment on top a church tower?
He moaned, removed her hand, and stood to raise Delia’s right leg around his waist, and she threw back her head to feel a blast of sun against her eyes. Kostya crouched, shifted his body, probed, the heat of one pushed into the heat of the other, then, good God, his pants dropped to his ankles, his entire body thrust upwards. Delia nearly toppled backwards except Kostya held her and she relaxed in a precarious position in the strange safety of his arms. Old women were supposed to be dry, unreceptive, their heyday passed, their blood tamed. . . how wrong Hamlet had been about his mother. . . . Dizzy, her body adjusting to the enormity of her young lover demanding her acquiescence, she gasped over the cock pushing its insistent and searing way. Her body pliant and prepared, her body moist and embracing, she delighted in his knowledge of her, in that irresistible young body rejuvenating her aging flesh, god, yes, how wonderfully good.”
~ Kenneth Radu, Butterfly in Amber, p. 129
Butterfly in Amber is also about accepting the cost as well as the consequences of one’s authentic life. In Delia’s case, it is a life without the intimacy of family, in the literal sense, or even her own children. Indeed, it may very well be this character’s particular Persian flaw, her inability to commit to long term emotional relationships as she struggles to live her life on her own terms, her atheism a means to find her own way without recourse to any kind of external approval system, whether social rules or religious dogma:
“She didn’t think in terms of betraying Yves, a name she could almost hear in the quiet churning and lapping of the water against the boat’s hull. Upon her return home, one last time with him could well mean one miserable time, an experience she did not care to endure, and would try to avoid when she broke with Yves. The poor man was beginning to feel like a harness on her fast-approaching old age, using his not-so-young, still prime body and her proclivities to open her check book. Once there had been real attachment, passion ignited by curiosity and propelled by secret rendezvous, then by familiarity; and now, not so much passion as habit and the convenience of the merely familiar remained.”
~ Kenneth Radu, Butterfly in Amber, p. 110
One thing is for certain. In Butterfly in Amber, Kenneth Radu once again takes his uncanny, innate “unique talent for capturing critical emotive moments of his character’s lives” to the next level in his transgressive exploration of hitherto taboo areas of Canadian fiction — aging sexuality, personal choice, and living life according to one’s desires. Like Delia, its heroine, Kenneth Radu’s Butterfly in Amber is a brilliantly realized, and transgressively original, novel. UG
The author of several works of fiction, including Flesh and Blood, Sex in Russia, The Purest of Human Pleasures, and Home Fires, Kenneth Radu’s last collection of stories Earthbound was released in 2012 by DC Books (Montreal). Having recently published Butterfly in Amber, he is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, personal essays, and jotting down ideas towards a novel. He lives outside a village near Montreal where he is immersed in bucolic fantasies when not obsessively writing.