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Butterfly by John Delacourt

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

What struck me about Butterfly was the elegance, with which the author unravelled a crime mystery plot, deepening with every chapter the personalities of the main characters. By the end of the novel, I was enamoured with Natasa Ruzic, the female lead, while oddly dismissive of Lucien Bollinger, the male protagonist. Perhaps, it was Natasa's desperate desire to distance herself from her tragically damaged past that intrigued me the most as she rose up to act and then take responsibility for her actions.

The initial centrum of the novel is the life of Lucien, who, having returned to Toronto from ten years of teaching in Japan, feels disenfranchised of any sense of achievement in his life. Now thirty, he ekes out a living as an English teacher for new immigrants. In this monotonous, undervalued job, he begins to sense the acceleration of time and a sense of worthlessness until Natasa, a stunning young woman from Sarajevo, enters his classroom. To Lucien's surprise, Natasa is drawn to him and they soon become lovers. Her past is an enigma for Lucien; her present marked by inconsistencies. Both he chooses to ignore as he falls deeper and deeper in love with her, or at least in love with the idea of loving her.

Natasa models for a Toronto artist, Alex Rebane, and lives in his studio. Rebane is making a major comeback after years of self-inflicted obscurity, and both he and Natasa have connections to a small, upscale art gallery in Montreal, the precise nature of which is opaque. Natasa's association with the art world re-kindles Lucien's own passions for art, and he seeks clumsily to bind himself to her world. At the same time, he senses danger from her Bosnian acquaintances, particularly Petar Stepanovic, whose ambiguous relationship with Natasa disturbs Lucien. Alex Rebane is murdered. Natasa disappears. And Lucien embarks on finding her.

Delacourt employs a kaleidoscope of first-voice narration, in which all the main characters tell their stories. While Natasa's voice is by far the most poignant, Delacourt meticulously crafts the voices of all his narrators to reflect their origins and personal tragedies, collectively depicting the senselessness of war-torn Bosnia, the callous infliction of death upon neighbours and at times, friends. The desperation to escape the misery left by the conflict translates for some into a descent into prostitution, pornography and drug addiction, for others, lives in the shadows of petty criminality, and for a few, a metamorphosis toward salvation as beautiful as it is unattainable. In contrast to the Canadian characters in the novel whose lives even in their banality seem charmed, there are no happy Bosnian souls in Delacourt's narrative, no superficiality or self-inflicted angst. Instead, we are treated to their individual voyages from and to the abyss.

This is Delacourt's third novel. His past works, albeit of merit, were often inaccessible for many readers, as he endeavoured to push the boundaries of literary style and creativity. In Butterfly, Delacourt demonstrates maturity as a fiction writer, crafting a novel that strikes a judicious balance between art and readership. It will assuredly be widely acclaimed.

Butterfly is published by Linda Leith Publishing.

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