"A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 20 2003)John Murray is a physician turned writer; his debut short story collection treads the line between the precise realms of science and the more abstract realities of everyday living. Murray skillfully etches his stories with strong characters, good imagery, and vivid storytelling. One begins to suspect here that science, which most of the stories are laced with, in one way or the other can be quite the art form.
Many of Murray's characters are in the process of coping with some personal loss. In "The Carpenter who looked Like a Boxer," a single father tries hard to cope with his wife's desertion. Danny Dalton must attend to his kids and his work while coming to terms with his new life under the intense gaze of his neighbors. Dalton hears "burrowing" noises at night probably indicative of inner restlessness.
Often, in Murray's stories, new paths are charted after seemingly chance encounters with near strangers. The meticulous and sensible Dr. Elizabeth Dinakar in "Hill Station" decides to leave her orderly life behind after she meets a man on a bus ride in India who earnestly outlines all his "assets" for her on a sheet of paper. In "All the Rivers in the World," Vitek suffers from deep fear of the sea having seen his two brothers die while doing their duties as fishermen on the ocean. Vitek's father, himself a fisherman, cannot take the guilt and many years later, abandons his wife and only remaining son to move to Florida. It is here that Vitek catches up with his father who now has a young girl friend, Chika Portini. The strong dynamics between father and son would have been more than enough for this story; an added dimension is Chika's past. It turns out that she is a doctor who has attended to refugees in war-stricken countries. She is herself fleeing from decisions made in her past. She tells Vitek, "Nothing really matters, nothing at all, except what you do in those few moments when you have to put yourself on the line for others, to overcome your own fear. It is all right to fail. It is more important to try, to do your best. This is all that makes failure acceptable." Vitek is transformed by this revelation and comes to term with his own fears.
Murray, who has served as a doctor in the third world, has set many of his stories in the developing world. His imagery of the cholera-ridden slums of Bombay or of war-torn Africa, are painfully accurate. The stories' characters are often immigrants (many are Indian Americans) learning to see both the "old country" and the new adopted one in fresh ways. In "White Flour," an American physician adopts India as his home while his Indian American wife would never return to India: "Pride was why she could never go back to India, admit that she had failed and was no longer living a privileged life."
Most striking in Murray's stories is the utter helplessness felt by people of science -- people we would normally assume have the power to make the world a better place for all of us. "Nothing we can do makes a difference," says a doctor trying to help refugees in a war, "it's like holding back a deluge of rain with a scrap of paper." A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies is populated with characters who are trying their hardest to learn from past mistakes and make the best out of their lives. They do so with controlled grace and charm. John Murray's debut collection is as beautiful as the ephemeral butterflies that flit through its pages.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories (March 2003)
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- Wind River Press interview with John Murray
- JS Online review of A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
- The New York Times review of A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
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About the Author:
John Murray was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1963 and received his medial degree at the age of twenty-two. During most of the 1990's he worked as an epdiemiologist for the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia after earning his master's degree in public health from John Hopkins University. The position allowed him to travel to many developing countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. In 1999, John and his family moved to Iowa where he enrolled in the the Iowa Writer's Workshop on a teacher-writer fellowship. "The Hill Station" won the Prairie Lights Short Fiction Award, and the title story was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best New American Voices 2002 fiction anthology.
John Murray recently moved back to Australia with his wife and two children.