Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 22.36.57 Margot Vanderstraeten, ‘Het vlindereffect’


Tension and reflection

Author and journalist Margot Vanderstraeten, perhaps best known for the slim but powerful “Mise en Place”, has a new book, Het Vlindereffect (The Butterfly Effect).

The butterfly effect is a concept drawn from science and meteorology, a metaphor intended to illustrate the phenomenon of high sensitivity to initial conditions, or in more ordinary language, how apparently insignificant events can nevertheless have major effects. The notion is that a butterfly flapping its wings on the North American continent could be the cause of a tsunami in South East Asia. The reader can only guess at the identity of the butterfly and the consequences of their actions as Vanderstraeten’s latest novel opens.

There are various candidates, including the novel’s main protagonist, Angela Gutmann, who makes a living as a “mystery guest” at the world’s largest and most expensive hotels. It is in that role that she and her son Theo are staying at Bombay’s luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel when it is attacked and occupied by terrorists. Ten years after these events Angela returns for the first time to Mumbai, in what turns out to be a challenging journey in every conceivable way. On the journey home Angela finds herself sitting next to Jane, a middle-aged woman totally wrapped up in spirituality. It seems that Jane might potentially be the butterfly, as she puts a great many events into motion.

The reader gradually comes to learn more about Angela from what she reveals to Jane, and even more from what she fails to divulge, about her life story, her experiences during the terrorist attack and how she came to survive it. As well as her conversations with Jane (which are not what you would call voluntary, Jane having made it clear to Angela that she would be prepared to pay if she proved to be a good conversationalist), Angela also remains in contact with her son, Theo, allowing the reader to see the whole picture. And Angela’s butterfly turns out to be someone quite different!

The Butterfly Effect is a novel that only Vanderstraeten could have written. Just as in Mise en Place she delivers gripping and compelling descriptions of chaotic and disastrous situations, making for an enthralling read as the tension of the hotel occupation alternates with descriptions of the lasting impact of the attack. The chronological structure of the book is equally effective, with descriptions of events from the near and more distant past blending smoothly with details of the present to create a unified whole.

Margot Vanderstraeten has also succeeded in bringing her arresting and complementary characters to life on the page. The characters of Angela, her aunt Ruth and her son Theo are drawn out in the most convincing fashion, although not all the players are equally prominent in the tale. The layering and the multiplicity of characters help to make Het Vlindereffect an extraordinarily exciting book, particularly when you realise that, strictly speaking, the entire story plays out over the course of a single aircraft flight.

As we wish to avoid giving away any spoilers we will limit ourselves to a single recommendation: Het Vlindereffect is a novel you must read. The book provides both tension and cause for reflection and is written with extraordinary fluency. In short, highly recommended!

Dorien Desmedt