The Butterfly Picnic by Joan Aiken

Although Joan Aiken is best known for her children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, she also wrote lots of books for adults. I read one of them, Castle Barebane, last year and enjoyed it so much I knew I would have to read more of them. Unlike Castle Barebane, which was a Gothic historical novel set in Scotland, The Butterfly Picnic, first published in 1972, is contemporary and has much more in common with the suspense novels of Mary Stewart. The characters even reference Stewart’s My Brother Michael once or twice!

The Butterfly Picnic is narrated by Georgia Marsh, a Greek-Chinese-Russian-French orphan with six older brothers, all of them scientists. Georgia has been summoned to the beautiful Greek island of Dendros by her cousin Sweden, another scientist. With no idea why Sweden wants to meet her so desperately, she makes her way to her cousin’s boat which has just sailed into the harbour – and is just in time to witness Sweden’s murder. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t see the killer’s face and when she reports the incident to the local police they show very little interest in catching him. In fact, they seem to think Georgia has imagined the whole thing and insist on sending her off on the next plane home. Luckily, the plane is promptly hijacked by Palestinian liberators disguised as priests and Georgia persuades them to return her to the island so she can continue to investigate Sweden’s death.

At this point I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was reading. The plot seemed too ridiculous for words and quickly became even more bizarre…

The plane lands Georgia on the other side of the island where she finds herself accepting a teaching job at a very unusual school inside a castle belonging to a millionaire described as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. However, it seems that someone is determined to prevent Georgia from discovering the truth, and she suffers a series of mishaps including being locked inside a kiln and falling through a trapdoor into an oubliette. While lost in a maze of underground tunnels, Georgia asks herself what Esther Summerson in Dickens’ Bleak House would do: Esther would have bustled up and down the passages doing a great many household errands and embroidering half a dozen yards of ornamental work and jingling her bunch of keys.

The Butterfly Picnic is fun to read and quite a page-turner, but definitely shouldn’t be taken too seriously! As I mentioned above, there are some similarities with Mary Stewart’s novels (the Greek setting, the brave and capable young heroine), while the scientist storyline also reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, but this is clearly intended to be a parody of those genres of books. As long as you go into it expecting a book that’s more of a comedy rather than a conventional thriller or suspense novel, you’ll probably find it entertaining.

Although I can’t really say that I loved this book as the plot was just a bit too silly, I will continue to try more of Joan Aiken’s novels. The next one I have on my TBR is The Embroidered Sunset and I’m curious to see what it’s like. One final note – be aware that the US title of this book is A Cluster Of Separate Sparks. I wouldn’t want anyone to buy the same book twice!

Book #3 read for R.I.P. XVII

Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!


I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!


1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor