An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell

Butterflies corner the arthropod market

Not many people like insects, the most successful group of creatures the world has ever known. Their lack of cuddliness, their scurrying, skulking ways, their occasional ability to deliver a painful or fatal bite or sting, all seem to trigger an ancient wariness. What is more unappetising than flies on meat? Which better subject for a horror film than a giant ant, its slashing mandibles carrying off screaming women? But to this rule there is one great exception.

You don't have to go to the Amazon and see the great cobalt blue morpho, a handspan across and looking like a piece of the sky that has fallen into the forest, to be enraptured with butterflies. You can go to southern Exmoor, say, in late July, and follow the path up the river Haddeo that leads to Wimbleball reservoir, and stop dead as you see a brilliant orange-and-black saucer floating through the oakwoods towards you, then another, then another, as the silver-washed fritillaries patrol for mates, or flowers, or places to lay eggs. You can be in your local park on an April morning and catch sight of the first brimstone, yellow as the sun.

There are other insects of beauty, but butterflies have cornered the market in arthropod loveliness, and have long inspired passion as well as scientific curiosity. A growing butterfly literature includes such highlights as Miriam Rothschild's dreamlike anthology Butterfly Cooing Like a Dove (1991) and Michael Salmon's riveting account of obsessive Victorian collectors, The Aurelian Legacy (2000). But it is not that extensive (far smaller than the literature of fishing), and any worthwhile additions would be only too welcome.

Sharman Apt Russell's An Obsession with Butterflies is not one, alas. The jacket blurbs from American reviewers say "masterpiece" and "exquisite" (the author teaches creative writing). In fact, the book is written in a ghastly, cliché-ridden style, forever striving for effect and falling flat on its face. "Art is communication. Art is the flare gun of possible sex. Art is a nasty memo between guys." Even worse than its execrable English is the lack of an informing pressure of personal experience. This is a plodding compilation of other people's insights and discoveries, sometimes other people's words, masquerading as an original meditation. You can see why it has been done. The market for popular science is seemingly insatiable and you can hear the author, or her agent or publisher, come up with the idea: "Next we can do butterflies!". All that's needed is to sit in the library, read the literature, extract the relevant bits and and regurgitate them, then add a couple of field trips and a few interviews for colour.

It's desperate stuff. Ploughing grimly through it, I was put in mind of Mr Bennet talking to his daughters at the outset of Pride and Prejudice. "But what say you, Mary? For you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books, and make extracts." And, even more, of the sentence following: "Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how."

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