We’re reading The Butterfly Assassin in real time and discussing everything that’s not on the page, and some of the things that are! Confused? See TBA Readalong Starting This Sunday. Want to start at the beginning? Jump to 17/09, Eraro.
Late at night on the 28th September and into the early hours of 29th September, Isabel tries to decode her father’s files.
Her father, we learn, doesn’t use Comma’s usual system of codes (computer-generated single-use decryption keys), but an older and arguably less secure approach: he’s still using a double transposition-type cipher based on a code phrase. This was a code in use during the Second World War, and if you’re interested in that, I would recommend Between Silk And Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941–1945, by Leo Marks, since that’s where I learned almost everything I know about codes.
It’s at this point I have to make a confession: I do not, in my brain, fully understand how double transposition works. I’m sure if somebody actually showed me how to do it, it would start making sense to me; I have read dozens of explanations of it, however, and not a single one made sense to me. I am faking it. I am pretending to know. I am basing my descriptions purely on other people’s descriptions and hoping that nobody calls me out on it. I’M A FRAUD.
What makes Ian Ryans’ codes difficult isn’t the cipher itself, but the fact that they’re multilingual with weird combinations of languages and alphabets that the majority of people in Espera wouldn’t be able to read. Modern languages, we’ve learned, are rarely taught in the closed city, since nobody within it is ever expected to leave; Latin is a popular school subject, since an ancient language with scientific and medical applications is more useful than learning how to ask for the train station in French when you’ll never go to France.
Isabel, however, was raised by her father, taught languages by her father, and understands how her father’s mind works – which makes her the best person for the job when it comes to decoding his files.
As she begins to untangle them, we see glimpses of her upbringing and the violence that she’s faced at the hands of her parents. I tried, throughout the book, to give enough information about Isabel’s childhood to make it clear exactly how badly she was treated, without ever being gratuitous about portraying abuse. I didn’t want it to be Misery Porn, and I was conscious also of writing for a teenaged audience: those of my readers who have personal experience of abusive family environments may well still be living in them, without the autonomy to leave, and I don’t want my book to be unnecessarily triggering or upsetting to those seeking escapism.
I don’t know how well I walked that line (that’s for readers to tell me, not for me to judge for myself), but it’s one of the reasons I kept these excerpts brief, impersonal, distanced from the present by being words on a page and fragments of memory, rather than delving frequently into elaborate flashbacks. But this chapter does give us a glimpse of some specific moments, including the story behind the scar on Isabel’s hand – a breaking point for Isabel, and the moment she realised that obedience was never going to be enough to protect her.
This, again, was something I developed only once I started digging much deeper into the psychology of my characters (and once I had a better understand of trauma and how it shapes people’s brains). These kinds of turning points are crucial to understanding a character, especially when it comes to something as big as the moment they resolved to run away from an abusive home. While I’m never going to be the kind of person filling out entire psychological profiles for characters, I do think you need to understand what drives them – particularly in a story that deals so much with trauma and the past – in order to write consistent and realistic behaviours in the presence.
Isabel has spent her life trained to obedience, and that’s still her first instinct, because she fears punishment. At the same time, we have seen her disobey; we’ve seen her refuse Ronan Atwood’s offer of help (strings attached), and the only reason the story is happening at all is because she ran away from home. Why? Because she’s realised that obedience doesn’t prevent punishment, and that she isn’t safe even if she does as she’s told. It hasn’t broken the instinct or the hold her parents have over her, but it’s fundamentally changed how she behaves.
In this chapter, we also see Isabel starting to fall back on the new lessons she’s learning – notably, Emma’s grounding technique of naming five things she can see and five things she can hear. Some people do this as a countdown technique instead: five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, or similar, using all the senses. I did five of each, because it’s how I’d encountered the technique myself.
Here, it serves several purposes: it shows the impact of Emma on Isabel’s life, but it also allows us to focus in on the sensory details of the scene. Moreover, because Isabel is on the verge of a panic attack, she initially can only name very small things very close to her – her vision narrowing to her immediate surroundings. She has to force herself to open her senses out to the whole room and ground herself within her flat, and in doing so, ground the reader in that environment too.
Some of my critics (a fancy word for “people who gave the book three stars on Goodreads”) have commented on the relative paucity of visual and sensory descriptions in the book, and it’s true; there are more of them than there were in earlier drafts, but it’s still not lush with descriptive detail. That’s partly a stylistic choice for this particular book and partly a side-effect of having an extremely non-visual brain, but I like to think that it gives these sensory-focused moments a greater impact, too. If we were always wreathed in descriptions, there would be less power in the moments where we’re forced to suddenly zoom out and consider our surroundings.
But perhaps that’s wishful thinking. You decide: you’re the reader, after all. Did my descriptions of codebreaking convince you that I knew a little bit about codes? How did Isabel’s desperate attempts at decoding these files make you feel? Do you have any good grounding techniques for those experiencing anxiety/panic? Tell me in the comments, and I’ll see you back here in a couple of days. (Yep, you get a day off.)