Cleopatra Brimstone, the 2001 novella by Elizabeth Hand, is a bizarre tale of butterflies and perverted aggression. It is the story of Janie Kendall, an only child who is raised in sheltered circumstances in middle America and grows into a university student with a great knowledge of entomology, butterflies in particular. Raped after leaving campus one day, her life is never the same. Retreating to her parents’ home—the only place she feels safe, it isn’t until a friend of the family arranges for her to house sit in London that she finally attempts to come to terms with the attack. Handled in a fashion no one could predict, what results is a story that has been told before, but nothing even close to Hand’s terms.
Cleopatra Brimstone is the name of a variety of butterfly that Jane comes across while volunteering at the Royal London Zoo. The name indirectly inspirational, her quiet American life comes to an end, and a counter-culture girl is born. Doc Martens, black vinyl raincoat, and a shaved head just the beginning of the changes, how she moves forward with life will have the reader in shock and smiling.
Deserving to be pushed a little longer, Cleopatra Brimstone moves in fits and starts—most often effectively. Hand suprising the reader by escalating the story one step at a time further from realism, there remain, however, elements which don’t quite fit, particularly one secondary character who plays a strong role in the climax, but whose motivations lack similarity to the detailed reasons behind Jane’s behavior. In fact, it is a simplicity which does not belie the layered story constructed prior. Rarely described directly if at all, Hand most often allows action to dictate character rather than exposition or inner monologue. Jane’s emotional response to the rape and her personality thereafter are presented as a scientist does a specimen. This is not to critique the approach, rather to point out that the fits and starts require the reader to contextualize the underlying reason, rather than depending on Hand to spoon feed—a compliment, in fact.
In the end, Cleopatra Brimstone is a tale where insects are transposed, a butterfly replacing a black widow. The writing focussed and smooth, once Jane arrives in London the narrative becomes an absorbing tale of a young woman free for the first time. There nevertheless remains a slight throw-away feel to the story, particularly given the ending. What might have been a strong feminist statement becomes semi-muddled when examined for theme. The superficial tale more than enough to turn the page, however, it’s possible to overlook the last few paragraphs and simply enjoy the imagery and plot. Not Hand’s best, but far from her or the genre’s worst.