Butterfly’s Shadow could be described as a steady accumulation of late-realised truths, which leave the protagonists with the painful sense of arriving at knowledge too late. The novel, which takes its inspiration from Puccini’s famous 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, is predominantly the story of Joey, the eponymous heroine’s child. In the opera, his mother Cho-Cho gives up her religion and family to marry an American navel officer, Ben Pinkerton, who leaves her shortly afterwards, unaware she is pregnant with his son. Ben returns, but realises too late that he still loves Cho-Cho.
In Langley’s novel, Joey is torn between two cultures, growing up in America with faded memories of Nagasaki and the Japan of his early childhood. Not able to understand until much later why his mother relinquished him to her lover Ben Pinkerton and his American bride Nancy, Joey struggles to reconcile the disparate elements of his identity, feeling acutely that ‘he has more than one past to remember’.
Ben, for whom Cho-Cho is ‘a leftover from a regretted past,’ never quite learns to relinquish his regrets and forge a meaningful relationship with his son. Whilst he experiences a growing awareness of the fragility of life and how often we all experience loss, he never quite grasps its importance. In a scene that finds him travelling in cramped conditions during the Great Depression, Ben wonders to himself if animals also felt pain, but he concludes in typical fashion that ‘these thoughts had not occurred to him before and seemed unhelpful now’. Ingrained in him is too strong a sense of denial. Ben’s transgressions set off a chain of others, both in America and Japan, and the novel pays close attention to how we atone for our mistakes. Joey’s stepmother Nancy, knowing that she is responsible for ensuring that Joey grows up without his biological mother, feels most keenly the need for atonement; her trajectory, with its inevitable pain and guilt, is sensitively observed.
Langley’s prose throughout is lyrical but never overdone, something that really comes across in her portrait of Joey and his attempts at forging an identity that encompasses both his American and Japanese selves. His Japanese past, so long suppressed, is violently brought back into focus after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent animosity towards Japanese-American citizens. Langley describes this reawakening in Joey in painful terms: ‘Somewhere a wheel is turned and with infinite slowness he is flayed, the flesh gradually stripped from his body leaving him peeled of his American sense of self’. This reforming of his identity is antagonised and violent – and yet necessary.
Butterfly’s Shadow is almost worth reading for the final descriptive passage alone. It is an image that sums up the spirit and wisdom of the novel, the sense of not reaching certain truths until it is often too late. For its characters, this is the source of great heartbreak but also self-knowledge. That this knowledge is so tied to reconfiguring the past gives the novel its poignancy, and leads to Joey’s lament that ‘wisdom is an ageing process’. We are always changed by what we learn.