Tue
Sep 23 2014 1:00pm

Fresh Meat: Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov

Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, is a dark thriller featuring a brutal serial killer at loose in Moscow and a young journalist in pursuit, who discovers, amid the acts of sexual sadism, an echo of her own desires (available September 23, 2014).

This book plays by its own rules.

From the first chapter, no, earlier, than that—from the first word Sergey Kuznetsov cobbles together a book designed to get under the reader’s skin. The first word of Butterfly Skin is “You.”

You are being watched. Someone is watching all the characters in the novel and the feeling of being stalked leaks off the page.

Butterfly Skin tells the story of a sadistic serial killer in Moscow, who takes an artistic delight in skinning, slicing, and slowly torturing his young, female victims. However, before you click over to a review of a book about a topic that’s actually fresh, Kuznetsov’s novel takes a unique approach. Instead of a grizzled, disillusioned cop chasing the killer, Butterfly Skin’s main character is a young journalist named Ksenia Ivonova.

Ksenia partners with investors, freelancers, and editors to set up a website meant to compile as much material about the killer as possible. The website includes accounts of the killers, descriptions of the bodies, theories about why this is happening, maps of the crimes, and forums devoted to discussing the crimes.

Oh, by the way, Ksenia also happens to be an enthusiastic devotee of BDSM. Butterfly Skin pulls in close on Ksenia’s sex life and Kunzetsov explores her desires with a forthrightness that manages to strip away the lurid or titillating aspects:

…still in the darkness of her closed eyelids, Ksenia unclamps the clothes pegs, freeing her nipples, and they flare up, sending a final tremor through her entire body; there’s a salty taste in her mouth she must have bitten her lip after all.

As the website becomes more and more prominent, Ksenia and the killer are drawn closer and closer. Ksenia herself has to come to terms with her own desires and begins to ask herself if she’s interested in the killer because it’s a good story, or if she’s interested in the story because his crimes appeal to her.

Perhaps Kuznetsov’s greatest accomplishment is in his use of structure and narrative point of view. Between chapters, he alternates between first, second, and third person, and the changes in perspectives knock the reader off balance.  The “you” chapters seem to be narrated by the killer, but often the traditional third-person chapters also seem to be narrated by the serial killer, who’s describing actions he cannot see. And when the reader gets a first-person “I” chapter, we now can’t even trust if it’s being told by the character or by the killer’s own dreams about the characters.

It’s no great feat for an author to spook us with a psycho’s love of killing. Yet Kuznetsov’s killer feels real and vulnerable in a way that does feel fresh. Some of the chapters narrated by the killer are formatted like a disturbing confessional poem. These chapters and the attention to phrasing turn the traditional psycho-babble into something much more chilling:

They say love is when you understand each other without words

But in reality

Explaining yourself without words is very easy

A scalpel, a cigarette lighter, fishhooks and boiling oil

Are more eloquent than all the poetry in the world

When the subject at hand is pain

And at bottom I have nothing else to talk about.

Sergey Kuznetsov’s Butterfly Skin has climbed from cult novel to bestseller in Russia and this first English translation, by Andrew Bromfield, is a great opportunity for English-language readers to see what all the fuss is about.

The novel is a tapestry with a structure that can be frustrating and fractured, but that reflects the actual fractured mind of the killer. Ksenia and her friends have serious vulnerabilities, but this makes their fates all the more relatable and terrifying.

Ksenia’s personal burdens and her attraction to pain, combined with the killer’s demented poetry, combine into a toxic soup that feels shocking without being lurid. Kuznetsov brings a flair to the psycho-killer novel and the result is as unsettling as any reader could hope for.

 

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Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His essays, interviews, and fiction have appeared in Kirkus Reviews, The San Antonio Express News, The Rumpus, Nimrod, and many others.

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