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.
Irenosen Okojie’s Butterfly Fish is one of the novels I read for February’s Black History Month. I read her short story collection Speak Gigantular a couple of months ago, so this gave me an excellent excuse to push Butterfly Fish to the front of the TBR. And I am so glad that I did.
The blurb doesn’t tell you very much so here is my attempt at a summary! It follows 3 generations of a family: Joy, a young black woman living in London, Queenie (her mother), and Peter (her grandfather). It starts right after Queenie has unexpectedly died, and left Joy her grandfather’s journal, and a strange bronze head. We also are given the history of the bronze head, which was made in 18th century Benin in the palace of Oba Odion. Throughout these interlinked narratives, we discover secrets about Queenie, Joy, and Benin.
I’ll be honest, I was a bit worried when I first started reading the novel. Okojie’s magical realism style worked so well in her short story collection that I wondered how she could possibly use it as successfully in a novel. I shouldn’t have worried. The novel begins quite gently in terms of the magical realism, but as it continues, reality begins to blur. Blood rains from roofs, a woman named Anon appears everywhere our protagonist goes, and fish give her magical keys. I’m not the hugest lover of magical realism, but here it was done so beautifully that I couldn’t help be swept away. It also helps that Okojie’s prose is effortlessly beautiful.
There are trigger warnings for Butterfly Fish, for a suicide attempt, rape, and incest. There is also quite a lot about mental health, and grief. If anyone else has read this, I’d like to know your thoughts about the depiction of Joy’s mental illness. It is unclear whether she is having hallucinations, or whether the magical realism is just an overlooked aspect of reality. I don’t really know what to think of mental illness being (potentially) used like this – that’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about a lot more. As someone with mental illnesses myself, I didn’t find it personally offensive, though I could see how it could be interpreted as using mental illness as a plot device/stylistic decision, which eh. Not cool.
ETA: I had a chat with Irenosen Okojie after linking her to this review, and this is what she had to say about the representation of mental illness in Butterfly Fish:
Mental illness is something that’s deeply personal to me. I’ve also had family members struggle with it. As a black woman who knows how difficult a subject it is in our communities to discuss, it was very important for me to portray a character like Joy so we can take the stigma away from it. In no way was her mental illness a plot device. That aspect is real for me and something that has impacted my life deeply.
So that’s really good to hear. 🙂
I honestly can’t believe that this is Okojie’s debut novel. Butterfly Fish is gorgeous and haunting, and has convinced me that Okojie is a must-buy author for me. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.