Dear friends, I said we were close to the end of this readalong and now we are on the final chapter of the book, and the penultimate post I will make in this series. I’m not sure what I’ll blog about once this is over; it has resulted in more blog posts than I’ve written in about the last five years put together, and I’m keen not to lose the momentum, while also relieved that I’ll be able to relax about this shortly. Your thoughts on what you’d like to hear from me next would be appreciated – drop them in the comments.
On the 28th of November, Isabel deals with the aftermath of yesterday’s terrible, very bad, absolutely no good day. Specifically, she deals with grief for Emma.
We’ve talked about grief before in this readalong, and how important it is to me that character deaths have weight to them, so that it feels like the reader is actually supposed to care about their loss. Emma’s death happens quickly, amidst a lot of unfolding action that makes it difficult for Isabel to stop and process what’s actually happened, so the first half of this chapter is the first chance she really gets.
It’s something that’s changed since the earlier drafts, since I didn’t always know how to bridge the transition from action scene to funeral. In the fifth draft, there was a lot of awkward aftermath to the escape from Katipo, exploring the exact logistics of how Isabel got back to the hospital and how they transported Emma’s body – none of which we needed, from a narrative point of view. Moreover, since the earlier drafts involved a subplot about Isabel’s desperation to move out of the hospital and I needed to show her achieving at least one goal, that draft also paused between climax and aftermath to show Isabel moving house – with Daragh and Mortimer’s help.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to fit this scene into the readalong, but I decided to make a space for it, because I need you to appreciate the pure concentration of dad energies that Mortimer and Daragh are bringing to this scene:
Daragh plugs the new kettle in. “Who wants a cup of tea?”
“Hold on a moment,” says Mortimer. “I haven’t unpacked the mugs yet.”
“I told you that you didn’t have to help,” Isabel says to him. “You’re not even supposed to be here. You should make the most of your fugitive status to do as little as possible.”
“I’m not a fugitive,” he says. “I’m just…”
“A protected civilian,” says Daragh. “Which is more or less the same thing.”
“Your flat’s as safe as mine,” says Mortimer. “And you’re not short on space.”
The flat has a spare room – a reminder that Isabel was meant to have a flatmate. Emma should have lived with her. Emma should have lived. “On your own head be it. I could do with a cuppa, Daragh.”
“Finally, an answer.” The doctor flicks the kettle’s switch and hunts for teabags among the shopping bags. Isabel leaves him to it, curling up on the sofa they found in the secondhand furniture shop down the road. She has a feeling Daragh’s avoiding something or someone; there’s no other reason he should use his day off to help her move house. Maybe he’s short of things to do now that she’s not dying anymore.
I have been joking since about 2014 that Daragh and Mortimer are Isabel’s gay dads. While it isn’t canon in the sense that they’re not confirmed as being in a relationship – although I do maintain a headcanon that they’re dating throughout book 2 and Isabel just hasn’t noticed, because she is deeply oblivious to that kind of thing – they have certainly nominated themselves to a substitute paternal role, and Daragh at least is confirmed to be gay (or possibly bi, but I read him as gay) by virtue of his relationship with Christopher. Thus, gay dads even if they are being gay dads separately. If they happen to meet and discover they have things in common as a result of that, well… somebody in this book deserves to be happy.
In the fifth draft, I think the two had met considerably more times during the course of the book than they have in the published version, which is why we do not get their powerful dad energies at this stage. Which means we were robbed of moments like this:
She wraps her hands tighter around her mug of tea. “You know, I can probably manage the rest by myself. You guys should go home, get some rest.”
“Are you sure?” Daragh looks concerned. “I don’t like the thought of you being alone.”
“It’s getting late. You’ll pick me up for the funeral tomorrow, won’t you?”
“I’ll be fine. I could use some time to think.”
“If you’re sure.” He gathers his things and looks at Mortimer: “Is it safe for you to travel home?”
“With you to guard me, what could I possibly fear?”
But don’t worry, it’ll be visible in The Hummingbird Killer regardless of how you read their relationship. For now, the paternal energies are focused on Daragh, and this scene closes with a description that’s existed for a very long time: the exhausted guardian angel of a girl who does the devil’s bidding.
This line… well, okay, I’ll admit it. This line was a darling I couldn’t kill. This line shouldn’t exist, because Espera is a secular city where public religion is outlawed. Isabel, who is our point of view character, has never read the Bible; she has never been taught about angels; she may have come across Christian references in books that she’s read, but at this point in her life, she hasn’t read a lot of books. This is a metaphor that does not belong to her worldview, and I should have cut it the moment I did enough worldbuilding to realise that.
But… I didn’t want to. Allow me this small ‘error’, please; allow me to step outside of Isabel’s head for one line to properly describe Daragh. Allow me to pretend that Isabel has read enough books to have come across this concept, and is drawing on it in this moment, because I couldn’t find any better way to describe him in this moment, as he dozes beside Isabel’s bed because he doesn’t want to leave her to face her nightmares alone.
I love Daragh, truly, I do. He is just so kind, endlessly; he carries a heavy weight of grief, and he uses it to help lighten the load of others.
So let’s talk about that grief, and specifically, let’s talk about Christopher. A lot of what’s on the page about him in this chapter has already been mentioned in the readalong: I talked about him on 29/10, and about his art, and about how I’ve always seen him as a foil for Emma. Now that parallel becomes even clearer, and Isabel asks Daragh how he coped with his grief, because she doesn’t know how to cope with hers.
I wanted, in placing these relationships side-by-side like this, to make it very clear that Isabel’s platonic friendship with Emma was just as important and just as powerful as Daragh’s romantic relationship with Christopher. So often in life and in fiction, friendships are treated as subordinate and lesser; when it comes to grief, without a clearly defined label of what you meant to each other, it’s hard to explain the depth of mourning one can feel for a friend.
Some of you may be aware that I’m currently a PhD student researching friendship in the later Ulster Cycle. As such, I’ve been reading a lot about historical conceptions of friendship – a relationship that is by no means clearly defined or obviously separate from kinship, service, or what we’d now call romantic love. Among other books and articles, I recently reread Halperin’s Heroes and Their Pals in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and was struck by this:
Death is the climax of the friendship, the occasion of the most extreme expressions of tenderness on the part of the two friends, and it weds them forever (in the memory of the survivor, at least). Indeed, it is not too much to say that death is to friendship what marriage is to romance. (p. 79)
Halperin is writing about a specific formulation of heroic friendships, often tried and tested in combat situations, and his examples include Achilles and Patroclus, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and David and Jonathan. There are a number of medieval pairings I would see as belonging to this same paradigm, and often – although not always – this pattern of death-as-climax is repeated there. A character dies, and their death allows the other to express the depth of his attachment and affection through his grief; to use terms of endearment; to describe the other as half of his soul; etc etc.
This is not a general statement about friendship, but historically, too, I find that friendship and death often go together, not because friendship is doomed, but because death is what often gives it voice: shared graves, poems, mourning verses. There are few opportunities, in life, to declare a friend the most important thing in your life – although the world of brotherhood oaths and formalised rituals had more opportunities than we do now – but death can create opportunity.
Looking back at The Butterfly Assassin in the light of this, I wondered if I believed this, and/or if I had accidentally written Isabel and Emma’s friendship to follow a similar pattern. After all, death crystallises a friendship at a certain point: there is no longer any possibility of it fading, of a falling out destroying the connection, of one turning their back on the other. The friendship is frozen forever in the state that it was in at the time of death, and in this case, that was Emma risking her own safety to come back for Isabel because she refused to leave her behind – certainly not a low point for their connection.
And it’s certainly true that Isabel doesn’t find it very easy to express her affection for Emma while Emma is still living; as we’ll see in the final post in this series, it’s only at the funeral that she’s really able to give it voice. Perhaps this isn’t the most extreme expression of tenderness between the two – I would argue a lot of that comes from Emma bullying Isabel into believing she’s worth something – but it’s certainly a rare case of Isabel actually saying her feelings out loud.
But to think of friendship as something that can only climax with death is a very depressing way to think of it. It sets you up for stories where happy endings can only come from other types of relationship, like romance, and locks platonic affection away into the realm of grief. It’s understandable to have these patterns and paradigms in epics and tragedies, where the hero is always doomed to die in the end anyway, and the friend’s death only prefigures that – but what about a modern novel, one not bound by the prophecies of epic?
Well, that’s where we need to build new paradigms. Better ones. The Butterfly Assassin on its own is a tragedy; the trilogy as a whole is not. But Emma’s death belongs to the tragic portion of the story. Her death solidifies her in the position of Isabel’s first friend, and establishes an undying connection between them; Isabel will always be changed by the fact that she knew Emma, and many of her actions throughout the trilogy will be shaped by that fact.
Perhaps, then, we could argue that death is the climax of this friendship, crystallising it at its most intense moment. But this can’t be the only type of friendship we believe in, or there’s no hope for anything. That’s why it’s so important that unlike Achilles, vengeful with grief, or Cú Chulainn, injured and mourning,* Isabel is not alone as she endures this aftermath. She has Daragh, who knows this grief, and has survived it, and who can therefore reassure her that it is survivable. She has Mortimer. She will have Leo – briefly, in the second half of this chapter, and more in The Hummingbird Killer.
And this, in the end, is what this trilogy is really about: not being alone. Being forced to face your own darkness again, and again, to go down into the depths of yourself like any tragic hero doomed to destroy his own story – but to have people there holding your hand while you do it. Even when you try to push them away! Even when you don’t think you deserve it! In fact, especially when you don’t think you deserve it.
Death and suffering offer opportunities for friendship because they provide new ways for others to demonstrate to Isabel that she is loved. To hold her when she’s mourning. To take care of her when she’s sick. To yell at her when she’s lost in self-loathing. Perhaps that, then, is the paradigm we should be looking for.
Emma’s funeral is held on the fifth of December, so we have a short pause now. I expect you need it, after the last few days (I certainly do). I will go back to looking at medieval and early modern friendship, and all the complicated terminology used to define it and all the ways it defies definition.
But before I go, here’s something to think about, and to offer your thoughts on in the comments (other thoughts also welcome). When early reviews for this book were coming in, somebody told me that they hardly noticed that it had no romance because the friendship between Isabel and Emma hit so many of the same emotional beats, and took its place within the narrative. This was, to some extent, what I was trying to do – I’ve read so many books where I couldn’t understand why certain relationships weren’t platonic instead, since that would have been more original and interesting – but it wasn’t something I was conscious of, and I wasn’t trying to map it onto any emotional beat sheet or anything like that.
There have also been reviewers, however, who picked up on that same detail but instead of it meaning they found the friendship fulfilling, it meant that they were disappointed when it didn’t flourish into a romance between Emma and Isabel. I never intended to write one; for me the pre-eminence of platonic friendship in this book is incredibly important to me. But I’m curious whether you, as readers, felt their relationship hit the same emotional spots as a romance would have done, and whether this made it more or less narratively satisfying in its final form.
Do leave your thoughts, and any other remarks, in the comments below, and I’ll see you back here in a week for the last post in this readalong.
*Normally I would be the first to argue that Cú Chulainn is not alone, because he has Láeg. However, when it comes to his lament for Fer Diad, Láeg is being somewhat less than supportive, more focused on telling Cú Chulainn to get up and make sure he’s ready for when they’re attacked again. It’s important to have a friend to take care of the practical concerns like this, but it means when it comes to emotionally processing the death of Fer Diad and the major shift in his understanding of what it means to be a hero – truly, I think Fer Diad’s death is the moment Cú Chulainn grows up – Cú Chulainn’s on his own, more than he has been at any other point in Táin Bó Cúailnge. And then he sends Láeg away to take a message for him, ensuring that he is actually on his own. Bad move. Get this boy a proper support network.