Review Blog

Aug 30 2011

The butterfly heart by Paula Leyden

cover image

Walker Books, 2011. ISBN 9781406327922.
This modern story set in the butterfly shaped country of Zambia in Southern Africa considers the existence of traditional beliefs in contemporary society. Bul-Boo and Madillo are twin sisters in their early teens who discover that their close school friend Winifred has a distressing problem. Winifred's father has recently died and according to traditional custom, her domineering and aggressive uncle has taken her widowed mother as a wife, and worse, has promised Winifred as a bride to his equally repugnant friend.
Not knowing how to help, the twins enlist the help of Ifwafwa, the local snake catcher who has mysterious powers but is kindly with decent values. Not knowing if he will be able to deal with this problem, the help of a 'Witch' (in the sense of witch-doctor) is also sought. Through these two characters, the reader appreciates that traditional laws are being misinterpreted and misused by the Uncle and that ancient cultural values exist to prevent such action.
The affirming notion evident throughout this tale is that innocent children must be protected and that risks should be taken and fears overcome to achieve this.
This novel is interesting and easy to read, but I was left feeling a little disappointed by what I perceived to be confusion in direction and an incomplete resolution. There are many veiled references to premature death and the creation of hardship for families and orphaned children, yet H.I.V. is only explicitly mentioned once and the sheer enormity of the situation may escape some readers. One cannot expect 'happily ever after' conclusions in novels of this type, however I was disappointed that important elements specifically introduced by the author were not finalised. Others however may consider that metaphysical and metaphorical elements provided the facility for the reader to construct their own outcome.
This novel will educate readers about social and economic realities in Southern Africa and will give some appreciation of how fortunate and secure most of us are in the developed world. It is fitting that it has been endorsed by Amnesty International.
Robin Welsh

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