Sunday, October 17, 2010

Emerging from a Cocoon

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett is a beautifully written book. Each scene is precisely set up with succinct and tiny details, and each character is given intent and motivation. Sentences are long, but elegant and containing a penchant for listing.

These facts, as I relate them, may indicate that beside its beauty, Butterfly is a dense story. Despite it's relatively short length of 232 pages, it is not a quick read. I'm unsure of who the audience is, as I would find it surprising if the average teen readers I know will make it all the way through the text. I myself fell asleep several times while reading. In the middle of the day on a Saturday. When I didn't previously feel sleepy.

The intent of Butterfly is to show Ariella "Plum" in the throws of her last weeks of being a child, as she miraculously changes into an adolescent with real hints of becoming a woman. These few weeks are supposed to contain the actions and consequences of what will form her nascent adult self. I don't feel that it is entirely successful. Plum does change, but I'm not convinced that it is into a butterfly, but rather something a little more callous. The reader is introduced to all of the major players in her life, her two brothers, Justin and Cydar, her parents (sadly underdeveloped), her flock of girlfriends (an assortment of cruel and kind, where she and we witness mob mentality), and the neighbor woman who is having an intent affair with an apathetic Justin.

Cydar, the middle brother is easily the most interesting character in the book. Supposedly brilliant, and not without flaws, he is observant and good, and cares more about his family and especially his baby sister than anything else in the world. He is hyperaware of his compulsion toward a tarnished nobility and is a little rueful about it - knowing that he'd sacrifice for Plum's benefit even if he were to suffer as a result.

"Plum loves Justin more than she loves Cydar, people usually do and cannot be blamed, and although he'd hoped that his sister might be something other than usual, Cydar accepted the situation years ago. It's never diminished the rumble of responsibility he feels in his chest for her. But the honk of her voice, the slope to her stance, the sore look of the skin on her forehead, the unwillingness of her clothes to fit well: all of these are making Cydar, who loves Plum more than anyone does, reluctant to look at her. The desperation which singes the edges of her - this is even worse. She's not fourteen, but sitting on the bungalow step Cydar is sure he sees how her life will unfold. Be fearsome, he wants to tell her. Defy. His own life depends on her doing so. His existence will never be all it can be if Plum stands in its corner, happy for and proud of him, but misaligned and alone. She will stunt him, and he will let her" p 62.


"And in [Cydar's] tightly stoned state he has a profound realization: Everyone in his family is sad. Mums and Fa, living lives that never managed to rise above the ordinary. Plum and Justin, aware of the peril, but neither of them clever enough to avoid a similar fate. Cydar himself, who will achieve enough for all of them, but will never feel rightly made for the world" p 106.

I should also address the fact that the book is set vaguely in the 1980's. There's no discernible reason for the setting, nor is it a major character. The only hints are an acknowledgement of a previous love of ABBA from some of the girls, and a subtle lack of modern technology. It brings up the argument of whether a quasi-historical setting was necessary, and if authors should set stories in the past if there's no reason beside the author's own faint nostalgia.

I'm putting this in the same boat as I put The Spell Book of Listen Taylor and The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kent. Well written, dense, slightly pretentious, and will probably have more adult fans than teen. If you, or anyone you know liked either or both of those books, Butterfly is one to investigate. If you have a great deal of patience and want a true character study, Butterfly will also hit the mark. If you're craving some plot-driven action, this one moves through thick, dark, sticky sludge. But it'll force you to create new synapses in your brain.

It's a good-for-you book. And probably has a shot at the Printz, depending of course, on who's on the committee.