Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: The Butterfly Tattoo, by Philip Pullman

Trailer for the 2008 feature film adaptation of the book, The Butterfly Tattoo.

I can't think of a better way to summarise this short thriller than its opening line: 'Chris Marshall met the girl he was going to kill on a warm night in early June, when one of the colleges in Oxford was holding its summer ball.' Chris is a seventeen-year old boy, working for Barry Miller and his company, Oxford Entertainment Systems. He is between childhood and adulthood, planning on going to university, and still dealing with the break up of his parents' marriage. The girl who becomes the catalyst that changes everything is Jenny, a few years older, more mature, but with a much more unstable life, living in a squat and taking odd jobs. When they find each other, everything becomes sweeter for both of them, but only for a little while, before Barry Miller confides in Chris that there is a man called Carson after him, and asks him to help him build a hideout near the canal.

Chris is a character who rushes into everything. From his romance with Jenny, to the conclusions he jumps to about Barry, he barely takes a moment to question what he is doing, to question himself. He decides to see the world as black and white, even when it makes no sense, even when everything in his own life is about shades of grey. He is the sort of person that I find very frustrating, but that makes a good character. Jenny is more sympathetic, wiser, but more tragic, especially as Chris gives her hope that her life can get better. The reader knows how the story will end at the start and I think this gives the book a strange kind of energy. I knew the two young protagonists were hurtling towards certain doom, even during the happy times, and that made me want to jump into the book and change things (a bit like a Brecht play).

I enjoyed reading The Butterfly Tattoo, but I was glad that it was such a short book. There was far too much telling, and not enough showing, and it was based around the dreaded insta-love, at least on Chris' part. I thought it was pretty clear that Chris was in lust rather than in love because he was infatuated with Jenny from the start, without knowing anything about her. Jenny doesn't get as obsessed as quickly so there is a good contrast there, but I would have liked to have seen him realise that he wasn't really in love with her, or to at least have the author acknowledge it. As for the ending, I predicted what would happen a few pages before it did, but it was still quite creepy and poignant. 

The Butterfly Tattoo is the only book I have read by Philip Pullman that isn't part of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and I was a bit disappointed by it. I think that as it is far shorter than any of those books, it's intended for a much more reluctant reader than I have ever been. I can see it appealing to teenagers who don't read a lot, with its dark subject matter and tight plot. However, The Butterfly Tattoo was originally published in 1992 (as The White Mercedes), reissued in 2005. Nobody in the story has a mobile phone, and if there had been mobile phones, all the disasters in the plot could have been easily averted. I found this distracting enough! The film adaptation was produced in 2008, and I haven't seen it, but I would like to find out how they dealt with this issue.


  1. I recently read a crime novel set in the early 90's and there were no mobiles or internet in the story and it really dated the book and it lost its appeal for me - funny how that can happen!

  2. mummazappa - I think some books get away with it because they're so grounded in their time with political context and cultural references etc, but other books are just sort of ambiguously contemporary and that's when they seem dated I think, because you wouldn't realise they weren't recent otherwise. The Butterfly Tattoo is the latter, I'm afraid, because a reader could assume it's set now except for the lack of mobile phones.

  3. I recently read this book and found it a really great read i couldnt put it down!!! Highly recommended :-D



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