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Philip Pullman – The Butterfly Tattoo

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A short story can often pack a bigger punch than a full-length novel.

Publisher: Picador
Pages: 192
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-330-39796-4
First Published: 1992 (as The White Mercedes)
Date Reviewed: 28th March 2010
Rating: 3/5

The Butterfly Tattoo (first titled The White Mercedes) is hard to get nowadays, I have provided you with the details of one and there are two others by Macmillan. You’ll likely have to go to the library or second-hand store to find a copy.

Chris meets Jenny at an undergraduate’s ball while working as a technician. Jenny isn’t supposed to be there and as it turns out she does this kind of thing quite a bit as she struggles to get by in an expensive city. It’s love at first sight for Chris and they begin to see each other. But in a world before mobile phones they lose contact and although they find each other again they now share an acquaintance whose friendship proves fatal.

The Butterfly Tattoo is not for children, despite the youthful covers always chosen for it’s binding. It is unsuitable for anyone under the age of sixteen; its topics being of an adult nature. For anyone older it should prove a decent read and certainly one of suspense. It would definitely make a good transitional book between usual young people’s fiction and books for adults.

The book is split into three sections, the first concentrating on the budding relationship between Chris and Jenny and the latter two on the crimes that will see them torn apart. Jenny is going to die, Pullman tells you this in the first sentence, but you don’t know how until the end. There’s a problem here in that he says Chris will be the one to kill her, in a way he does, but not directly, it’s more a case of both of them making wrong decisions.

Pullman also confuses the reader as to Chris’s character. It’s not a huge problem but the fact is that he makes Chris strong, clever, and has him hear that Carson is on his way after Chris has met him unknowingly – and then lets Chris go on as if nothing has happened without even hesitating to think of the things you would expect him to think of.

These things said the book is a success because it effectively tells a story in a third of the time a regular-sized novel would. The Butterfly Tattoo could have been drawn out to 400 pages or so – instead it forgets about using subplots and frees itself from unnecessary information. You are given short backgrounds of the characters and both Chris and Jenny do very little other than things that relate to each other. The book takes place over the course of a couple of months. It deals with first love perfectly whilst not giving it the rose tint – a Pullman speciality.

Pullman writes a story where all loose ends are brought together, except one. He combats this last one in a way, by having characters suppose, but it still leaves you, as a reader, feeling unhappy because you know the sad truth.

This is not a happy story and never is. You know where it’s going to end up, but knowing this makes it interesting and provides no illusions – and you’ll be left with a bigger impression than those granted by longer reads.

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Iris

May 22, 2010, 11:00 am

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read anything by Pullman, this sounds like a great read though.

Charlie: I’d definitely recommend this as an introduction, it’s short (so if you don’t like it it doesn’t take time away) and includes the basic general style of storytelling he uses. He tends to have female characters as the main character, which isn’t the case in this one, but there’s enough time given to Jenny for you to see how he writes female characters.

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