Cover of The Butterfly Stalker
The Butterfly Stalker
Robyn Friend

will keep you enthralled to the end
Carmel Shute, Stiletto
both frighteningly plausible and compelling
Christopher Bantick, The Sunday Tasmanian
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Book Description

The Butterfly Stalker is a psychological thriller with a difference. When Theodora Dante is commissioned to write her Citys official history she also uncovers its unauthorized secret history. That alone could spell trouble. She overlooks the city through the ancient flawed window of her top storey dwelling. In the flats below are a couple ensnared in a marriage of dependency and violence, and an adulterous nurse and her clergyman lover. In strange ways their lives begin to echo hers.

But Thea has her own secret. She is planning the murder of a stained-glass artist, Daniel, who lives across the park in a desanctified church he is renovating. Her plan is reaching its final act. Thea
s story has the glittering depths of a butterfly preserved in a glass paperweight... And that is the object she intends as her murder weapon.

The Butterfly Stalker is rich in symbolism and layers of meaning. It marks Robyn Friend
s anticipated return to fiction after the controversial success of her first novel Eva.

ISBN 1876044381
Published 2003
199 pgs
The Butterfly Stalker book sample

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Chapters 1 - 8

Chapters 9 - 16

Chapters 17 - 18

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The Butterfly Stalker
Carmel Shute
Stiletto, No. 26, Spring 2004

Set in Tasmania, this is a powerful tale about obsessive love and murderous intent.

Theadora Dante, commissioned to write the official history of her town, wants to write of the dark, hidden truth of the dispossession and murder of the original inhabitants. The civic leaders want a sanitised account of the colonial past.

Meanwhile, Thea’s embarked on an illicit affair with Daniel, an artist who lives in an old de-sanctified church where, amongst other things, he teaches stained glass making. He gives Thea a butterfly caught in a prism of glass, which she comes to see, I believe, as representing the male gaze. It helps harden her heart against her lover and she plots to kill him.

Friend has a strong voice and brings some new approaches to the thriller.

The Butterfly Stalker will keep you enthralled to the end, which has a pleasing twist. Again, this is another Australian crime novel that could benefit from being with a major publisher with good distribution.

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Recent Writing
The Butterfly Stalker
Ralph Wessman
Famous Reporter, No. 28, December 2003 (pgs 181-190)

[Text not yet available]

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Tassie Mind for Murder
Christopher Bantick
The Sunday Tasmanian, 2003

From the opening page of The Butterfly Stalker, we sense something ominous is about to occur.

Robyn Friend’s novel is one of those rare books which is both frighteningly plausible and compelling.

Although a well-plotted and determined crime is at the centre of the story, Friend cajoles us into thinking that perhaps it is a figment of our imagination. This is a clever book.

Friend lives in Launceston. The novel is set in a place which is not with any certainty Launceston, but there are temptations to see it so.

It is, however, a very Tasmanian story.

In the opening chapter, we are told the protagonist, Theodora Dante, is writing a history of the unnamed city. ‘Not a particularly adventurous task,’ she says. ‘More a join-the-dots companion for the sightseer.’

This might seem innocent enough, but beguiling readers is Friend’s strength. We soon realise that Dante is also intent upon killing Daniel, a stained-glass artist who lives in a nearby deconsecrated church.

The story is Dante.

‘The first person enables me to get murky,’ Friend says. ‘I can go deep into the psychology of a character.

‘It cuts out the distance between the reader and the writer. It gets the  material of the story and the reader together immediately. No one is relaying it through a third person.

‘I like playing around with what goes on in the human mind. The first person enables the reader to experience thoughts more directly.’

It doesn’t take us long to realise that Dante is a seriously unbalanced character. Her coolness in her self-acceptance that she will commit murder is chilling.

So too is her voyeuristic absorption with the lives of those who live with her in what was once an inn but is now divided into three flats.

There is the ‘too starched’ nursing sister, Suza, who’s having an affair with a local clergyman.

She tells Dante, and us, that this is her mission; she is ‘rescuing him from his church, from his religion.’

Then there is Angela and Hadley, living out an ‘intense nightmare of married life.’

These are interesting diversions to the overall narrative thrust of the story. What dominates is the city and the church where Daniel lives. Friend says that she left the city location unidentified for a particular reason.

‘It is not Launceston but a geographically fictionalised place. It could be any city anywhere. Then again, if you take a whole lot of impressions of where you live, they come out in other ways.’

We are told that the city is on an island. Dante is anything but murky when she declares: ‘Now, when you understand it is this islandness explains much of the psyche here...’ we feel there is something about the isolation which has prompted her to stalk Daniel.

Friend says the depths or Dante’s thinking fits with her understanding of Tasmania

‘For me, Tasmania is paradoxical, a place of startling light and dark places. Here there are pastelled shades and a gothic feeling as well. It’s never wholly one thing or the other.’

It would be misleading to read this story as a subtle warning that it is life on the island which is responsible for her behaviour. She is simply mad.

Needless to say, Daniel and butterflies are connected. All the more so as he made the paperweight, a butterfly enclosed in glass, which Dante intends as her murder weapon.

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The Butterfly Stalker
Cameron Woodhead
The Age, 19 July 2003

Robyn Friend’s second novel is a second-rate psychological thriller in which the narrator, a local historian called Theadora Dante, plots to kill a stained-glass artist who inhabits a nearby church. From her third-storey apartment, she observes the romantic foibles and domestic disputes of the women living beneath her, while unearthing the darkest secrets of the island city she inhabits. The way that Friend interweaves past and present is mildly absorbing but her prose is purple and prone to affectation. And if The Butterfly Stalker is typical, the editorial standards at Black Pepper leave much to be desired. The book contains solecisms that would induce wild lamentation in the reader if they weren't so unintentionally hilarious, How cool are ‘lava floes’, for example? And how long do you have to wait if something is ‘on queue’?

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The Butterfly Stalker by Robyn Friend
Sumanyu Satpathy
Newsletter IASA (online), Indian Association for the Study of Australia, February 2003

Set in a nameless city, which nonetheless shares a close resemblance with Launceston in Tasmania, The Butterfly Stalker tells the story of Theadora Dante, its narrator-protagonist. She has been commissioned by the City Council to write the official history of the city in which she lives. While researching her subject, Thea comes across archival material that threatens to unmask the powers that be, exposing the horrible doings of their ancestors, the island’s first settlers in the mid-Victorian era. Using these bits of information she begins to chart another history, the sordid unpublishable story of the ancestors of the city’s present lawmakers. She lives in a top-floor flat of what was earlier an inn, with a history of its own. In the flats below live a couple ensnared in a marriage of dependency and violence: Angela and Hadley; and yet another couple: an adulterous nursing sister Suza and her clergyman lover Paul. Thea discovers that the rumour about the house being haunted may well be true; and further that these characters may well be living each other’s lives, and, maybe, die other people’s deaths. Thea’s experiences lead her to plot the murder of her lover who is a stained-glass artist, Daniel by name living in a dilapidated, Gothic church overlooking her window. The suspense of whether she succeeds in carrying out her plot or not carries on till the end. The other subplot pertaining to the historical exposé is also held in suspense till the very end.

This bare outline of the novel, of course, fails to do justice to its rich and intricate symbolism, its highly subversive politics, and what is more, its technical brilliance. For, beneath its narrative surface runs a seething undercurrent of anger and protest directed at power structures in Friend’s city, Launceston (‘the brooding pretty prison’ as she calls it in ‘This Pretty Prison’). After all, because of her political activism, she has been called names in the recent past: ‘a communist’, ‘lesbian feminist’, ‘a ratbag’ and so on. Because of the novel’s sharp indictment of the inhuman implementation of the political agenda of the city’s founding fathers, and of the erasures performed in official history writing, it may well prove to be as controversial as her first novel Eva is. I, therefore, shall proceed to bring in some more details.

First, that the central symbol of the novel is a triptych by Daniel comprising three images of feminine sexuality. The artist has used Thea as the model for the triptych. The second symbol that dominates the narrative is the glass paperweight gifted by Daniel to Thea in which a butterfly in flight is cleverly captured. She plans to smash the first by using the second one as a weapon. The self-reflexive novel wonders more than once how the narrative simply cannot do without the primacy of the number three, already suffused with Christian symbolism. But, here, the idea of the Trinity is treated with utmost irreverence.

The multi-layered narrative is the result of many a crisscrossing of spatiotemporal frames. That the city is no geographical fiction becomes evident from the close resemblance it bears with present-day Launceston. Placed beside the other aspect of the novel, its tendency to parody stereotypical ideas and icons, the interweaving of history and fiction in the novel makes it highly intertextual.

This parallel between the discursive and the creative alerts us immediately to the falsity of the binary in the context of postmodernism. In the novel, the unofficial history, which is destroyed by Thea at the end, attains a performative status as, by articulating the so-called suppressed history, it actually lays bare the ugly past of the city’s founding fathers.

What is noteworthy, however, is how Friend is able to interweave the two histories, and the stories of the lives of the fictional characters. Whatever happens to the fictional characters seems to have been predetermined by the history of the place or the people they are connected with. There is a trace of the naturalist tradition here. The main plot around the life of Thea and Daniel (and her husband), however, is used for raising aesthetic questions, about the power and purpose of art. But, like the other man-woman relationships in the novel, this relationship is also used to explore problems of female subjectivity, and sexuality. The novelist interrogates the use of the female body by male artists to serve patriarchy, and the eagerness of the women as willing victims. At one level the triptych is quite obviously a representation of the stereotype of woman as the lover, mother and witch-temptress. But Thea deconstructs it for herself. The same can be said about the paperweight. The butterfly stalker is undoubtedly Daniel. But both, the image of the butterfly and Daniel transcend their particularity to the universal image of the sexually exploited and exploiter. Thea, Angela and Suza, for all their differences replicate and relive each other’s lives even while reliving the lives of the mother who was killed by George Ratford. Eventually Angela is murdered by her husband, Hadley, because she refused to abort; Daniel does not want Thea to become the mother of his child, and there is a hint that he used his psychic powers to destroy the foetus. Thea nearly dies of a miscarriage and is saved a second time from a suicide attempt. In her fight against the perpetrators of crimes in the past and present, she decides to first expose the generational history of crimes and their present-day descendents, and then take her little personal revenge. Intriguingly, after delaying the revenge Hamlet-like, she does not kill Daniel, and destroys the typescript of the second history. Shrouding herself by a haze of metaphysics and aesthetic theory she persuades herself into believing that Daniel, though living, is yet dead. And she preserves the history of the gory past in her mind. It is this ending which is the most dissatisfying for me because it sounds so defeatist. Or, is it left deliberately disturbing? This is debatable.

Friend’s ideological moorings may well have been shaped by intellectual and political developments within Australia. After all, (Germaine Greer) The Female Eunuch and The Empire Writes Back (Bill Ashcroft et al) were influential works by Australian academics. But, in spite of what she calls the ‘islandness’ of the fictionalized Launceston (or Tasmania or for that matter Australia) the effect of globalization, of political activism among writers cannot be ruled out. Yet, the blurb of the novel makes the innocuous claim that the yet-to-be-published book is a psychological thriller. I do not know whether such a description enjoys the approval of the author. But, having read the novel (novella) many times over, and carefully, I feel that the description is misleading.

As I said the novel is self-reflexive at many points. What it does not reflect on, however, is the novel’s preoccupation with three kinds of hegemonies: patriarchic, territorial, and racial. One wouldn’t like to schematize the novel so neatly, one might still say that the twin political concerns of the novelist, feminism and post-colonialism are enmeshed in the multi-layered story, presented in the formless form of postmodernism. In the process, Friend redefines the parameters of both feminism and post-colonialism. If post-colonialism generally concerns itself with the colonizer-colonized binary in a seamless and undifferentiated pattern, where the voices of the aboriginal people are systematically muted, homogenizing categories such as Africa and Australia, Friend goes to the heart of the problem, by trying to reconstruct the history of the aboriginal people. In her attempt to fictionalize history, offering a new historiography altogether, layering history and fiction, and avoiding realistic linearity, and using self-reflexivity and irreverent parody as a fictional strategy, Friend firmly places herself in the post-Patrick White generation of writers.

We are told Friend has lived and worked in Launceston (Tasmania) and Africa. She has worked at old-age homes, and with the aboriginal people of the Huan and Channel communities. In her forewords and writings, such as We Who are Not Here - Aboriginal People of the Huan and Channel Today, dealing with these subjects she has given evidence of her concern and sympathy for these marginalized people, helping them to articulate their problems. She figures in A Writer’s Tasmania edited by established feminist writers and poets such as Carol Patterson and Edith Speers, and has herself written on ‘Sex and the Australian Writer’. These preoccupations and interests of hers colour the novel. In this she is a part of the process which overtook intellectual life of Australia in the 1980’s. As Bruce Bennett has pointed out, in the decades following the `80s ‘Australia... became a testing ground for intellectual movements, including feminism, post-colonialism and postmodernism’.

When I first heard that the publication of the novel, has been delayed due to certain `unforeseen circumstances’, I attributed the delay simply to the inscrutable ways of the publishing world. After reading the novel, however, I feel that there is cause for worry. I shall be happy to be told that my fears were unfounded, and the novel has seen the light of day.

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