Butterfly's Shadow, By Lee Langley

Madame Butterfly, the next chapter
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The opening scene of Butterfly's Shadow is a prose retelling of the ending of Puccini's opera: it's Nagasaki, 1925, and Cho-Cho-San watches the arrival of her American "husband", Pinkerton, and his fiancée, who have come to take her baby away.

The first seven pages would make a beautifully crafted short story in their own right. Indeed, many scenes throughout the novel have this quality. The story follows Cho-Cho-San's son Joey as he grows up in America, ignorant for years of his mother's language and culture; living through the Depression; internment as a Japanese alien when the Second World War breaks out; fighting for his adopted country in the Italian campaign; and finally visiting the ruins of Nagasaki after the war.

Lee Langley observes all her characters – the mistreated but dignified Cho-Cho-San; loyal Suzuki, who makes the transition from maid to friend; the coarse, hapless Pinkerton; and the conflicted, innocent Joey – with a sympathetic but never sentimental eye. And not only is Langley expert in depicting the contrasting style, atmosphere and philosophy of Japanese and US cultures; she is brilliant at showing how those cultures changed over time.

In its scope, showing how the years alter both individuals and societies, this is reminiscent of Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale. The style is graceful and deliciously readable, and the novel ends with an unforgettably eerie and moving image.