When this book landed on my desk for review, I could not wait to delve into the story. The premise was one that hugely appealed to me – that of the dual narrative, the present day story interwoven with a past narrative. I am no stranger to fiction in this tradition, but Butterfly Fish is unlike any that I have ever read before. Not only does Okojie masterfully blend together four well drawn and strong characters and their stories, she has also, in her elegant and frankly beautiful employment of language, left me as haunted as Joy the novel’s central protagonist.
Butterfly Fish is not a comfortable read – and that is a good thing. This is not one of those novels whose quest narrative resolves the characters’ inner yearnings in a satisfactory manner. This is not a story of Kings and Queens and independent young women making something of their lives – although these are all devices and plot points which do feature. No, this novel explores exactly what happens to the human mind when grief is experienced. There is darkness in these pages and it is the darkness of being human, of being in despair, of discovering long hidden truths which have been cruelly masked and it is about accepting that sometimes what and who we are is not some ideal, but rather a ‘thing’ that is broken, debauched and yes, unstable. This is certainly a novel which lingers in your consciousness long after the final page has been read and in many ways, this places the reader in a similar position to Joy.
Left bereft after the death of her mother, the loss becomes a hole in her life which is infiltrated, permeated and at times, riddled with ghosts. The fearsome figure of ‘Anon’ that so plagues her throughout the novel draws the reader to the startling truth of the protagonist’s mental health – an issue which it is refreshing to see covered so openly in fiction – as well as providing a window into the rich past of Benin, Nigeria.
It is here that the language and storytelling seems to take on another life and I could easily imagine the tale of Oba Odion being shared by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters in the tradition of Nigerian story telling. The palace seemed to come alive for me and the elements of mysticism and evocation of curses and spirits became very real and unsettling to experience – this was a truly fascinating story.
What this novel does very successfully is to demonstrate that one action, and in the case of the four narratives here, one object can have ripples of consequence for years to come and these can change what we thought we knew about ourselves, who we are and what we stand for.
Butterfly Fish is an incredible novel from a writer who uses her own heritage to teach us something new about ourselves on a very individual level. What I was left with was the notion that what we inherit isn’t always a comfort, but that if we are brave we can use it to learn the truths which help us understand our own humanity. A beautiful read which will stay with me for a long while yet…
Butterfly Fish was published in 2015 by Jacaranda Art Music.