With wry humour and a deft touch, Butterfly Fish, the outstanding first novel by a stunning new writer, is a work of elegant and captivating storytelling. A dual narrative set in contemporary London and 18th century Benin in Africa, the book traverses the realms of magic realism with luminous style and graceful, effortless prose.
A couple of months back I read Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular and it blew me away. I was obsessed with all her characters and have wanted to read her debut novel Butterfly Fish ever since then.
I have wanted to write this ‘review’ for a while but have felt stuck because I just didn’t know where to start. It made me feel a lot of things and I had to put it down at points to take a breather (I should probably mention at this point that the book contains triggers for suicide, rape, incest and living with mental illness., basically a lot to process). After much introspection, I thought the easiest way to do it was to just tell people why I loved it so damn much! And obviously why I think you should read it:
- The writing!
Irenosen’s writing style is one of the most diverse I have read. While Irenosen’s lens in Speak Gigantular was razor sharp, Butterfly Fish has a richer prose. The author really takes her time to build her characters and gets you to invest in them. I really enjoyed Butterfly Fish and found it to be an immersive reading experience, I haven’t been fully consumed by a book and its characters in the way I did with Butterfly Fish in a while. So if you are looking for an immersive read to help you survive your commute to work this is the book for you.
- History and Magic Realism
Magic Realism is one of my favourite themes in literature and I am drawn to writing gives the supernatural and otherworldly the benefit of the doubt. In Butterfly Fish magic realism has a real purport; Firstly, through the ominous family inheritance of the Bronze Head, Irenosen weaves the thread magic realism to connect for the read 18th century Benin and today’s contemporary London. The Bronze Head has a history and haunts our modern day protagonist Joy, it forces her to look back into her past. It leads her to devastating ancestral secrets, which reveal that family inheritances are rarely only material.
I also liked that we time hopped back to the ancient and prosperous kingdom of Benin (modern day Southern Nigeria). This storyline gives us a glimpse into the kingdom’s riches and successes before it succumbed to Europeans pillage and rape. Such images and narratives help counteract the ‘Third World’ narrative that is often attached to the African continent and its countries. I like that a little bit of history was set right through this.
- Real Women
Obviously I am going to talk about the female protagonists of this novel. One of the main reasons I read is so I can ‘meet’ strong female characters that I don’t see in other forms of media.
What really stands out for me in Irenosen’s writings is that the women she conjures are real. They live, breathe and hurt like the rest of us. They are not moulded along the infallible ‘independent women’ trope, where you are either perfect or not worthy of the title. This is true for all three of the main female characters in the story; Joy, our protagonist living in London, Queenie, Joy’s recently deceased mother and Adesua, free spirited wife of the Oba of the Benin kingdom. There is also Mrs. Harris, Joy’s eccentric neighbour and another mystery for Joy to solve.
The women in Butterfly Fish have their shit, deal with it and are still themselves, their identity is not tied to what they accomplish. I liked that they are just allowed to be. I felt this particularly with Joy, who is dealing with the grief of her mother’s death and lives with depression. Yet we don’t see her as broken or somehow incomplete as some narratives around depression tend to be. Instead she is a gentle reminder that people are complex beings, who can face adversity and still be their fierce self. A reminder I was in desperate need of!
Whatthelog also has written a lovely review about this books which focuses more around the issue mental health and how it is depicted: https://whatthelog.wordpress.com/2017/03/04/butterfly-fish-review/
This book was published by the indie publisher Jacaranda. You can buy this book and read more about the author on here