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A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

John Murry

(HarperCollins)

Just Biding Our Time 'til We're Needed

The cover blurb heralds this collection of eight stories as a “remarkable debut.” A little hyperbole on the publisher’s part? Hardly. If anything, the publisher is guilty of being too modest. John Murray’s collection is simply marvelous.


These stories are marvelous for several reasons. First, John Murray is a medical doctor who has come to understand the workings of science as both a discipline and as a profession in a way that is unusual among writers. He is not in awe of his characters, there is no hero-worship. Rather, he understands his characters and makes us see them as simply very talented people damaged by their careers, their training, their parents, their migrations, their lives.


They are, in other words, pretty much like everyone else. Elizabeth Dinakar is a matronly expert on diarrhea who sees “beauty in the microscopic world that she knew others could not understand.” She is 40 years old before she goes overseas for the first time. To India. There she must confront for the first time the horrid realities of the diseases she has studied only in the laboratory, not to mention the infidelities and abuses of her parents as well as the loneliness, the detachment, imposed by her up bringing and education.


An aging surgeon contends with the childhood death of his beloved older sister. The circumstances were unsavory at best, but only he knows about that. More immediately, his much younger wife demands pregnancy, and he drinks too much. He knows he should talk to his supervisor about his drinking problem, but he can’t bring himself to open up to a man he considers his inferior, a much younger and less talented surgeon.


A young wife uses the demands of her career as a potentially brilliant paleontologist to hide her adultery from her physician/husband. Her mentor is, of course, taking advantage of her, and the ruse costs her both her husband and her career. She sinks into an everlasting bitterness, a burden her son, Joseph, carries into his career as a geologist.


A second marvel of these stories is the writing style. Murray writes with a simple, stark precision that is reminiscent of the well-honed laboratory report, but he is still able to construct powerful and lasting images. An Indian doctor who is more Oxbridge than any Englishman observes that only three things are certain in the world. Tea, cricket, and death. Murray characterizes an upper-middle class Indian girl as “well-read, conceited, rebellious, full of her own self-importance.” But of the four-week orgy of color that is the adult life of a monarch butterfly, Murray writes, “There is a painful transience to it all. They are nothing but a drop of color in the ocean. A fleeting moment that dazzles and blinds, and then is gone forever.”


Another marvel is that while Murray’s tales are classic in structure, they are nearly plotless. They are more like vignettes, a brief study of lives, and the author shows an unusual ability to distill decades, sometimes generations, into a few short pages. And he does this without tricks, hidden agendas, or tacky surprise endings. Rather, Murray puts his emphasis on the glimpse, the moment when the character has a flash of self-understanding, of self-awareness.


Chika, a nurse burned out by six years of relief work in places like Afghanistan, has taken up with a much older man. She reflects that a whole life comes down to just a few key moments. Life is about “fifteen minutes here and fifteen minutes there…Everything else is just biding your time for when you’re really needed.” Moments later her lover’s son plunges into the ocean he has feared since the drowning deaths of his two older brothers and feels as if he has “jumped through a plate-glass window, cleared some kind of transparent barrier.”


The alcoholic surgeon concludes that he can see his own past drifting just out of reach.


The 26-year-old Joseph is to deliver a letter from his mother to his father, their first communication in 15 years. It could lead to reconciliation or still greater acrimony. He hesitates and comes to understand “for a few slow minutes, the pleasure of not knowing.”


Several of the stories in this collection, notably “Blue”, “The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer”, “Hill Station” and “A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies”, have already received attention and garnered prestigious awards. Others are entirely new. Among these, my favorite is “Watson and the Shark”. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an inexperienced doctor joins a team in an isolated missionary hospital. The characters discuss their purpose and reasons for being there while refugees pour in. Their conversations center on a 1778 painting by John Singleton Copley. A cynic reflects that they are all there because they are running away from something. Another argues that to save just one life is to affirm the value of life in the face of a world that is mad. When the soldiers finally arrive, the doctor, motivated either by misplaced heroism or foolishness, confronts a child-soldier and is promptly shot. He is saved by the skill of an older doctor whom he regards with something like hero-worship. Recovering in Paris, the doctor realizes that he has made a friend, and making just one friend is explanation enough.


These are stories of loneliness and alienation, of friendship and self-discovery, of a journey through a wilderness where the only certainty is of constant, relentless change. They are the stuff of high literature but thrilling as well. The type of stories that Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner would find gripping. Let’s hope that John Murray still has a whole barrel full of stories in his repertoire.


We can thank the publisher for issuing this book in the spring. Murray’s prose almost demands to be read aloud and we have all summer, now, to sit under oak trees and do precisely that.

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8 Oct 2014
Murry expands on the harrowing journey that he first chronicled on 2013's The Graceless Age.
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