The Englishman and the Butterfly is an undeniably ambitious book, firmly enmeshed not only in literary references, but also in a distinct aesthetic sensibility. Asmussen is a published poet and English teacher, and the heft of this book comes primarily from the loving use of language and the deeply felt respect for the literary canon. The novel follows Henry Fell, a lonely and anxiety-ridden Oxford professor newly relocated to Boston on an academic fellowship. Henry soon falls in with the popular professor Geoffrey Hearne, the awkward and lumbering professor Christopher Moberley, and Julia, a PhD student who serves as the center of a erotic matrix which quickly turns dark and layered with envy, lust and grief, and from which no one will emerge unscathed, if at all. Throughout, these academics and poets (at least aspiring ones) quote, allude, and meditate as they attempt to make sense of what surrounds them, even as it shifts from everyday foibles and neuroses into overt horror. Throughout the book, the language is thoughtful and deliberate, creating its own kind of introspective lull. It’s easy to fall into the lyrical language of this book, a dream-like state that both depicts and recreates the temptations of seeing life through too distant a lens.
The same passion for literary language can also be seen in plot, which veers from satirical takes on self-absorbed academics to a woman in peril to moments of stylized noir to meditations on Zen Buddhism. These shifts in tone, while demonstrating Asmussen’s breadth of interest, also at times lead to some disconnect in pacing. Much as Henry Fell’s literary training has both trapped him and given him succor, The Englishman and the Butterfly sometimes stumbles under its own impressive scope and pedigree. Rather than illuminate, it can obfuscate. At one point, Asmussen slyly presents us with a transcribed interview between Henry and a frustrated police officer, who has no patience with Henry’s allusive—and elusive—answers to his questions, and the investigator’s frustration is not only palpable, but sympathetic, slicing through the indulgences of wit and meta-references that both the book and Henry so rely on. It’s a powerful moment in the text, but almost immediately falls away, leaving the roots of Henry’s eventual epiphanies that much more ephemeral.
Asmussen likens the book to a parable or fairy tale and in that sense, the language and imagery take significant emphasis over plot. Despite some twists that border on the sensational, the novel remains insular, deeply committed to Henry’s belated coming of age story, sometimes at the expense of clarity. In particular, the characterization of Julia was somewhat frustrating; despite being given point-of-view passages, she ultimately seems to function as a catalyst for the acts of the men around her, rather than a fully-realized character in her own right. The book struggled to solidly connect its plot points of intrigue with Henry’s emotional evolution, making his growth less satisfying and more solipsistic than it might have been. What does shine through, however, is a deep and passionate love for literature, and an earnest questioning of how we navigate between its comforts and its shortfalls. Even if Henry Fell’s epiphanies may be less than satisfying, the writer’s pursuit of them is an admirable one. Asmussen’s passion and intelligence make him a writer well worth watching.