Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 340pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Butterfly Shadow, By Lee Langley
Friday 30 July 2010
Madame Butterfly's doomed story of a Nagasaki 'bride for hire' and her marriage to an American naval officer has, since Puccini's opera in 1904, reappeared in innumerable adaptive forms. Broadway produced Miss Saigon; Malcolm McLaren's eponymous chart hit gave it a pop makeover, and early film-makers even dared to create silent versions.
The weight of these past interpretations has not discouraged Lee Langley from returning to the great operatic romance as the basis for her historical novel. Yet it is, ironically, not the strength of the romance that gives Langley's 11th novel its most compelling elements but her inversions and perversions of the original story, in which she take the reader from 1920s Imperial Japan to the Great Depression in America and then, most powerfully, to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The book opens where the opera ends, with the suicide of the abandoned Japanese bride, now called Cho-Cho, whose uncle sells her to a sailor, turning her from a virgin into a soiled woman after Pinkerton, her temporary husband, takes sail. Her "honourable suicide" has, in the past, been presented as the only ennobling action for a woman seeking final redress for her loss of dignity in traditional Japanese society. Yet Cho-Cho's fate is left hanging for almost half the novel.
When she re-emerges, she has become much more than Puccini's tragic heroine: a modern woman who has found an alternative mode of being beyond the wife/whore dichotomy.
It is not only Cho-Cho whose psyche is reworked. Pinkerton's American wife is reconfigured so that she is no longer the marginal character of the opera. She is the one who snatches Pinkerton's child, Joey, and takes him to America as her adoptive son, and it is through her eyes we see much of the story unfold.
The short-lived love affair between Cho-Cho and Pinkerton is described in the generic language of the romance genre. He is, to her, an all-American hero: "She recalled his eyes that echoed the sea in the harbour; his hair that blazed like fresh wheat." Pinkerton, in turn, describes her as a classic seductress-victim, "an object to be desired by a man, and in due time discarded."
It is in the second half that the book gains its emotional momentum. Langley's detailed descriptions of war blaze with brilliance, from Pearl Harbor and the reflections of patriotic American Japanese immigrants taken to a detention centre to the terrible crescendo of Nagasaki, shown a millisecond before the apocalyptic, egg-shaped bomb is dropped. Madame Butterfly's rather timeless themes of love, abandonment and sexual passion are infused with the crude, faceless destruction of war, and in this way made new.
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