"Butterfly Skin" Book Review
Written by Sergey Kuznetsov
2014, 400 pages, Fiction
Released on September 23rd, 2014
When a book simultaneously pulls you in opposite directions, it forces you to analyze your feelings and to read more carefully in order not to miss any detail that might tip the scales one way or the other. Sergey Kuznetsov's Butterfly Skin caused conflicting emotions to jockey for position from the first few paragraphs and, despite attentive reading, it kept that balance until the last page. Now that it's over and I've had time to digest its content, I still can't say one feeling overpowers the other. The book is good, but it could've been great, and its shortcomings are too powerful to ignore.
Ksenia is the manager of an up-and-coming news website in Russia. She's only 23 years old, but has quickly climbed the ladder in the industry because she works hard and is very ambitious. She's a focused, consummate professional at work, but her personal life is marked by taboo desires and kinky practices because she enjoys being dominated and even a bit hurt during sex. When a serial killer who tortures, rapes, and mutilates young women starts receiving media attention, he becomes Ksenia's new project. The young journalist creates a site dedicated to the madman. It contains all the information on the case, maps, psychology articles, and message boards where individuals can share theories, ask questions, and tell other of their experiences. The site is a success and that makes Ksenia happy, but then her personal life interferes with her professional life and she becomes obsessed with the murders. While she ponders the meaning and ramifications of her new fixation, Ksenia meets a man online, a man who becomes her digital lover. Unfortunately, this man might not be who he seems to be, and the relationship will end up in a place the young journalist could never have imagined.
The first thing that should be said about Butterfly Skin is that Kuznetsov has chops. He effortlessly shifts between the everyday narrative of life at the office and the darkest ponderings of a murderer. Also, the passages dealing with the killer's thoughts contain some unexpectedly poetic writing that manages to turn vicious murderous thoughts into something akin to poetry:
"It is good to kill in autumn. The blood cannot be seen on the red leaves and the yellow leaves float in the crimson puddles like little toy boats."
Despite the talent displayed on these passages, the parts that deal with the serial killer also contain some stylistic decisions that hurt the narrative. For example, there's an instance in which the phrase "the jets of water were streaming over my skin" appears three times in the span of two pages. Likewise, the killer describes his penis as "huge and red as if all the blood in the world had flowed into it" time and again. This repetitive style quickly becomes boring and bogs down the narrative. In fact, it pulls the spotlight away from great writing and shines it on passages that made me think of mediocre writers trying to be shocking. Both the author and the editor share the blame for this because a great editor would have tightened up these paragraphs and suggested more varied language and richer descriptions.
Butterfly Skin succeeds at telling the story of a serial killer and a young journalist and how their twisted, somewhat tortured minds bring them together. It also does a great job of exploring the mind of the murderer and the plethora of emotions and ideas that come into play when he's planning and eventually torturing and murdering a victim. Unfortunately, the last third of the narrative tries to inhabit a cerebral, may-not-be-real space that confuses the reader from time to time and seems to move away from the story that was being told in the first two parts. Between these shortcomings and the unnecessarily long descriptions and side narratives explored (I won't go into them, but the lives of secondary characters are dealt with in detail while adding nothing to the main storyline), Butterfly Skin ends up being a decent but sometimes tedious 400-page read instead of the violent, sharp, and punchy 200-page novel it could have been.