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February 6, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

For some reason, the girl in this book is nicknamed Plum. With a whimsical name like Ariella, you have to wonder why the author chose to utilise a dull, dark fruit to represent a fourteen-year-old. For whatever reason, this book is full of unexplained touches, and while they add texture, they also don’t really add any meaning.

Plum is a typical teenager living in Australian suburbia. If the book mentions anywhere specific, it’s so inconsequential even this reader forgets the exact location—it is enough to know that Plum and her family are typically Australian, a mish-mash of other cultures blended into one kind of homogenous everyday lifestyle. It resonates with exactly what is going on in the households of everyone else on Plum’s street, echoing the kind of easily identificable, endless everyday living.

It takes a while for the reader to realise that while Plum has a loving home life, she is a emotional loner at school. Her friends are the kind every fourteen-year-old girl has—self-conscious, nasty, conceited little know-it-alls desperate to outgrow this particular stage of life—and Plum struggles to find someone with whom to connect. Her prime solace is her older brother, Justin, who watches old movies with her and has the kind of upbeat, lackadaisical nature that seems to help her forget she doesn’t fit in everywhere else.

Things change, however, when Plum meets her next door neighbour properly for the first time. Maureen, a lonely thirty-something housewife, invites her over to celebrate her young son’s birthday. And when this glamorous older woman promises Plum the secret to being untouchable in life, the girl swallows up her misguided attempts at advice.

Hartnett is not afraid to experiment with metaphor and simile. However, this can be grating when at times when a more direct approach might render the characters more empathetic; instead, the reader is sometimes left with a sense of disconnect when assimilation is most desired. Plum’s breasts, for example, are described as ‘two crème brûlées turned out from dessert bowls’, her nose and mouth ‘blurred by childhood’. Accurate descriptions, yes, but they don’t really give us any insight to Plum’s mindset, if only to illustrate what she sees (and what makes her self-conscious). The best use for this type of approach is when Plum’s brothers experiment with drugs that are ‘strong as a train and loaded with paranoia’. There’s a bit of an overload of these poetic descriptions, or maybe I’m not accustomed to this type of writing. To be sure, it’s beautifully composed and well-paced, but I tend to grow impatient if I’m confronted with too many images to decipher. One well-placed simile is more effective for me when used at the optimum moment, instead as a consistent approach to tone.

Ultimately, this book is more about disconnect than anything else; Plum’s attempts to reach out to people are either systematically abused for other secret purposes, misread, or simply ignored. Hartnett is an expert at analysing the tangled links that exist between people, and how those links may inadvertently trap anyone else who intersects their path. Cydar and Justin, Plum’s two older brothers, sink into the inevitable mire of hum-drum life; Plum is not yet aware that the same fate awaits her. Yet her interactions with Maureen, her brothers and her friends all signify that this plunge is coming. It seems as though life is preparing her for the fall without her even being awake to the prospect. With youth comes optimism; Butterfly almost seems the story of how that optimism is worn away by harsh reality, until there is nothing left but the brilliantly-patterned and short-lived insect that prospers in summer.

Butterfly is not a negative book per se. It is an analysis of suburban life and the pitfalls that accompany the routine of society; it addresses the inevitable track of disappointments and small victories that most people seemed destined to follow, and the way in which these travails end up affecting people around them. It only seems logical that the tone be bittersweet.


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