The Arch and the Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari
Preparing to leave for work one morning, Youssef al-Firsiwi finds a mysterious letter has been slipped under his door. In a single line, he learns that his only son, Yacine, whom he believed to be studying engineering in Paris, has been killed in Afghanistan fighting with the Islamist resistance. His comfortable life as a leftist journalist shattered, Youssef loses both his sense of smell and his sense of self. He and his wife divorce and he becomes involved with a new woman. He turns for support to his friends Ahmad and Ibrahim, themselves enmeshed in ever-more complex real estate deals and high-profile cases of kidnapping. Meanwhile Youssef struggles to reconnect with his father, who, having lost his business empire and his sight, spends his days guiding tourists around ancient Roman ruins. Shuttling between Marrakech, Rabat and Casablanca, Youssef begins to rebuild his life. Yet he is pursued by his son’s spectral presence and the menace of religious extremism, in this novel of shifting identity and cultural and generational change.
*Many thanks to Bloomsbury QF Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*
It took me months to finish this book, I kid you not. I kept picking up this book, reading a few pages, and putting it down only to repeat the same process a few weeks later. It was definitely tiring. I’m not sure what the main idea of this book was; the synopsis seemed interesting enough but the book had nothing in common with the synopsis. To put it in simple words, this book was a train wreck.
Everything in The Arch and the Butterfly was scattered; there was no coordination between the plot and everything else. The book jumped from one plot point to another like this was a tennis match. Honestly, what was the main plot? His dad, or his dead son in Afghanistan, or his gay friend, or his sister, or the corruption in Morocco? Frankly, I can’t tell.
In addition to that, I just found this book to be very dreary and insipid. There was too much character rumination, which I am not a fan of, and long-winded flashbacks that weren’t even remotely related to the book. Also, we are provided with detailed histories and backstories to unimportant characters that contribute nothing to the story. Zilch. Nada. It was so hard keeping track of everything – the characters, their names & backstories, the flashbacks and just — everything’s purpose, I suppose. In an effort to make the book intriguing, the author peppered it with complex ideas that just made it overbearing. I believe it would’ve been more interesting if ideas were weaved through more skillfully, or if they were just toned down, to be honest.
Furthermore, there’s still the main character – Youssef – to discuss. At first, he was okay, but then we learn about his weird detachment issues, which I (again) don’t know contributed what exactly to the story. Half the time, I don’t even know what Youssef was thinking about! Sometimes he was an emotionless husband and other times he was this lover of two women. He had no charisma to get the reader to like him – although I don’t exactly know if the author did that purposely or not.
The only one redeemable thing about The Arch and the Butterfly was the way the author described settings in the story. It was beautifully written and dare I say it – captivating. It’s a shame that the fact alone couldn’t balance out the rest of the story.