Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 215 pages; 2009.
Sonya Hartnett is an Australian author who writes largely for the Young Adult audience. Butterfly, her latest novel, falls somewhere between two stools — it feels like a teenage novel, filled with typical teenage angst, but it also deals with subjects, including extra-marital affairs, that are surely a little more adult. Given it has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, I suspect the judges feel it’s one of those crossover books that deserves some attention. I’m not sure I agree.
Without wishing to damn Butterfly with faint praise, this is a highly readable book and one that I hungrily devoured in a day. And while I very much enjoyed spending time with Plum, a lonely 13-year-old girl with body-image and self-esteem issues, there were elements of this story that irritated me.
For a start, we don’t really get to know the full cast of characters that people this book. Plum has two 50-something parents, whom are mentioned only in passing, and even her brothers, Justin and the preposterously named Cydar, seem thinly veiled sketches. Indeed, it’s not until you are almost a-third of the way through the book that you find out that Justin, whom Plum adores, is 24 years old, and Cydar, 22. This revelation came as somewhat of a shock, because I’d assumed both were teenagers.
Ditto for the time period in which the book is set. It’s not until one of Plum’s school friends mentions that her father has secured tickets to the Moscow Olympics that you realise it’s 1980. Although I suspect I should have picked up on earlier clues, because Plum has a poster of David Bowie on her wall, wishes her bedroom was carpeted in white shag and hankers after a miniature television “set inside a sphere of chrome, with three stumpy legs and a rapier-like aerial”. There’s even a reference to a cricket match in which (Allan) Border is not out for 90, and Imran (Khan) is caught out by (Greg, or maybe Ian?) Chappell for nine. Where’s Wisden when you need it, right?
The first chapter is also riddled with metaphors and similes, to the point of distraction. For instance, Plum’s brother Justin is “as rangy as a tall ship, handsome as ship’s portrait”, Plum’s cheeks “are the pasty yellow of cereal left to float all day in milk” and when Cydar teases her she feels like a “deer in a huntsmen’s forest”. Later she “pounds through the house like a rock down a cliffside, storming up the stairs like a centurion”.
But if you can forgive the trying-too-hard prose there’s quite an interesting story here, one in which Hartnett has perfectly nailed the pain and confusion of being a 13-year-old girl, desperate to be liked and respected. The mood swings, the temper tantrums and the tears are all here in full unadulterated shameless glory, as evidenced by this outburst at the dinner table:
“You always laugh at me! I’m a person, I have feelings, I’m not a joke! Why can’t you all leave me alone?”
Her depiction of the petty bitchiness of school girls and the god-awful aspects of peer pressure are also superbly done. And while Plum is clearly not the angel she first appears to be, you can’t help but empathise with her plight.
But the story just doesn’t revolve around Plum. There’s a second, interwoven narrative strand, in which Maureen Wilks, Plum’s neighbour, plays a significant role. Maureen is a 36-year-old housewife, with a four-year-old son, who befriends Plum. As well as telling Plum things to boost her self-confidence (“You’re exactly the type of girl who could become a fashion model” and “I’m so glad we’re friends. I’ll learn a lot from you”), she convinces Plum to reinvent herself by changing her name to Aria. What you don’t realise is that Maureen has her own secret agenda. It is only when Plum figures out this agenda that the book comes to a head. But, even then, the conclusion feels somehow half-hearted, and not nearly as melodramatic as it could have been.
An interesting, entertaining book, but a Miles Franklin award winner? Probably not.