Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2010

Butterfly (2009), by Sonya Hartnett

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Sonya Hartnett.  She usually writes bleak books for the Young Adult market, and although I admire her skill in recreating adolescent angst it’s not a genre that holds much interest for me.

Butterfly, however, has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and so when I saw it at the library I thought I’d take the opportunity to read it.  Hartnett, after all, has won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award which is impressive even if we’d never heard of it before her win.  Like most YA books Butterfly is not very long, only 214 pages, and I could reasonably expect it to be undemanding reading.   So I borrowed it, interested to discover why a book for Young Adults is being considered for our most prestigious award.

(Digression: what does it say about books longlisted for the MF (Parrot and Olivier in America, The Book of Emmett, and Butterfly) if they are readily available on shelf at the library, and there’s no need to reserve them or wait weeks in the queue?)

So, to Butterfly. You’ve already surmised that my expectations weren’t high.  Books that straddle the YA market are usually a bit simplistic in their themes and immature in their preoccupations: teenage love, or the lack of it; being misunderstood; relationships with peers; body image issues et al.  From what I remember of Hartnett’s other books that I’ve read, there’s usually a catastrophic reaction to something someone says or does as well.  I think young people like her work because  it appeals to their sense of the melodramatic.  It’s a stage most of us go through, because it creates significance amid the banality of everyday life.  Still, longlisting, at the expense of other really terrific books whose omission I’ve posted about, must mean there’s more to Butterfly than the usual teenage angst, right?

Well, I don’t think so.  Never mind the tiresome protagonist and her clichéd family and friends, it wasn’t long before I was profoundly irritated by the writing.  Awkward imagery litters the pages, wrenching me out of the story.  Why is the family meal a metaphor for death, with mum discovering ‘a seam of sausage and segmented pineapple’ buried under the kitchen’s tiles, and what sort of long thin rectangular container has rice been cooked in so that Mum can lift  ‘the lid from a sarcophagus of rice, releasing a curse of steam’ (p6)?  I have been distracted from the scene by culinary puzzlement. Oh dear.

Moving on I find that light defies the rules of science and ‘ vaults the kitchen counter’ (p10)   and there’s a TV in a ‘globe of chrome’ (p11).  A globe?  I was distracted again: this image made me remember the last time I looked at TVs for sale. Whether little ones that 13 year-old Plum might desire or giant plasma types, they were all flat screens, with not a curve to be seen much less a globe.  It was not until I was well into the book – when one of the girls’ parents has tickets to the (1980) Moscow Olympics – that I realised that the story is set in what teenagers would consider the distant past.  I had wrongly assumed that references to a Datsun Skyline meant that the neighbours were too poor to have a more recent car.  The mystery of the globe TV isn’t solved till p55 when Plum reveals to Justin that what she wants is a ‘teeny-weeny television inside a silver ball with little legs’. A Google search for ‘collectible TVs’ found it for me.  (Well, almost.  I couldn’t find one with legs).

Ok, I know I’m pedantic and the market for this book probably isn’t. But it’s been nominated as eligible for our most prestigious award.   So when Plum pulls on an old suitcase with such ‘aggravated force’ I’m annoyed about the misuse of the adjective, [1] and although I suspect I’m not meant to be, I’m wryly amused that the ‘case leaps like a seal into her lap’; that the latches snap open ‘militarily’ (p13) and that she looks into it with ‘an archaeologist’s eye’ to retrieve a Mars Bar from its contents.  This kind of writing is just silly, metaphor for the sake of it.

Two pages later I am distracted yet again – by a new word: festeriness’ . I look it up, annoyed with myself because by now I realise that I am proof-reading this book instead of entering into the story.  Perhaps there is such a word, I think to myself, if teenage pimples fester, maybe festeriness is the result, eh?  Online, the dictionary offers no help, but I discover a gay website which alludes to festeriness as baldness, and one of those vapid publish-your-story-online sites which has pirates using the word to describe the condition of some fish.  Another site tells me that Uncle Fester is a Goth icon.  Perhaps I am too old to be reading this book…

Are these strange words used by accident or design?  Is it mimicry of the vocabulary of a 13 year old so ignorant she can’t spell 4th?  I wasn’t sure if the ‘hoitiness of landed gentry’ (p16) was meant to be a mispronunciation of ‘haughtiness’ or a misuse of  ‘hoity-toity’; they don’t mean the same thing and while the context suggests the former, why spell it that way, the opposite of an Australian accent struggling with the vowels?  Plum isn’t using the word anyway, it’s the narrator.  Is this a teenage language I don’t know?

More irritations: a ‘querulous screen door’ (p18); some species of indecisive mosquitoes that I’ve never encountered which ‘wobble‘  (p20); and ‘tumours’ excised from jam (p31).  On page 32 leaves scud about in a wading pool ‘territorially’  –(why??) and on p51 a hairdresser who ‘deals with hair as an abattoir deals with life’. (I must run that one past Josie, who cuts my hair…)

More intimations of death: Plum’s room is ‘hush [sic] like a memorial to her’ (p87);  people are kind to her ‘as if a relative is dead’; (p137); stuff is kept in a ‘coffin under her bed’ (p150);  Mum whispers that guests are gone as if it meant ‘deceased‘ (p155)

Why would anyone would consider it writing of the  ‘highest literary merit’ under the terms of Miles Franklin’s Will?  What criteria could they possibly be using??

I think the emperor has no clothes., but clearly there are those who think otherwise.  See MelbArts; The Independent Weekly; The Age and (my favourite) The Literateur.

[1] ‘Aggravating’ used incorrectly turns up again on p26.  It is not a synonym for ‘irritating’, it means ‘making things worse’.  Penguin editors should be ashamed of themselves.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Sonya Hartnett
Title: Butterfly
Publisher: Penguin 2009
ISBN: 9780241015421
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Oh dear. I’ve got this one in the queue, hoping to read it before the shortlist is announced. I did read her About A Boy earlier this year and absolutely loved it…

    Mind you, I started reading Jasper Jones the other day — and gave up about three chapters in. So terribly overwritten. I might go back to it a bit later, when I’m in a better mood, but I did wonder why it had been so lauded.


  2. I’m always grateful when a good book isn’t recognized and is left on the library shelf for me – a much more discriminating reader! Sad about the MF, and sadder for SH. I feel she would have benefited from the help of a good editor (like Lisa), who could have eliminated some of those reading annoyances. Labelling a book for “Young Adults” should not be a reason for excusing poor writing, and only leads to the YAs accepting the mediocre. “It won the MF – it must be good”. It’s too early – I think I need an editor…


    • Good morning Pam! You are another library lover:)

      I agree entirely about editing for YA – but I wonder if this book is a case of a successful author being under pressure to produce something new too quickly? It’s usually not an author’s fault if mistakes aren’t corrected but sometimes successful authors e.g. Iris Murdoch) refuse to take advice or they intimidate their editors. Still it *is* the editor’s job to tidy things up – that’s what they’re paid to do – but maybe they too are under pressure to get books out there on the shelves?

      It’s interesting to contrast the sometimes sloppy editing of YA and adult books with the high production standards of Australian children’s literature. It’s very rare indeed to see mistakes being made in children’s books, whether novels or picture books. I wonder why that is?


  3. Good morning Kim! I’ve got Jasper Jones too, but am a bit discouraged by the cover art. Puts me in mind of that Nigerian thing we read last year, can’t even remember its name now LOL.
    Try and get hold of The Book of Emmett. I’ve just started it and it’s good, possibly very good!


  4. […] Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin) – see my review. […]


  5. […] • Alex Miller – Lovesong, see my review. • Brian Castro – The Bath Fugues, see my review. • Craig Silvey – Jasper Jones, on the TBR. • Deborah Forster – The Book of Emmett, see my review. • Peter Temple – Truth (I’ve read it, but I don’t review crime novels). • Sonya Hartnett – Butterfly,  see my review. […]


  6. What a pompous review.

    First of all, you attack Hartnett for her “errors” with language, and yet you make a basic error yourself by calling Butterfly a YA novel, which it isn’t (although it could be easily read by both adolescents and adults, as is often the case with the best of novels). Do you ever visit the book store? Have you seen where Butterfly is located? I live in Sydney, but in every shop I’ve been into, it’s located in the adult section.

    Are the Coyle family cliched, or are they in fact an accurate portrayal of 1980s suburbia? I admit that I am a male, so a female protagonist will generally be harder to relate to; though much of growing up is universal and there was enough in the novel which resonated with my own adolescence to keep me reading. Certainly, I found none of the male characters shallow.

    Another comment which I take extreme offense to is that: “Books that straddle the YA and adult market are usually a bit simplistic in their themes and immature in their preoccupations: teenage love, or the lack of it; being misunderstood; relationships with peers; body image issues”.

    Umm … what adult novel doesn’t deal with one, or all, of these? And what is wrong with YA fiction for doing so? I don’t see you putting chick-lit authors under this kind of scrutiny.

    As to your side note: (Digression: what does it say about books longlisted for the MF (Parrot and Olivier in America, The Book of Emmett, and Butterfly) if they are readily available on shelf at the library, and there’s no need to reserve them or wait weeks in the queue?)

    In short: it says that these books are not The Da Vinci Code. Nor are they Harry Potter, or Twilight. The short-listed MF entries are (generally) not the sort of books that will be best-sellers (few Australian novels are).

    Are you saying that only popular books should be nominated for prestigious literary awards? If so, how do you ever expect first-time authors to receive any kind of recognition?

    I found this review more irritating and irksome than you found Plum.


  7. I felt as though you had already decided not to like this book before you even opened the cover and it shows,within your review you are more concerned with flaws in the language used in the writing and attempt to tear to pieces the creativity inherent in Harnett’s work~Perhaps her writing style is not to your literary taste but that does not mean that others do not appreciate her ability to play creatively with words as imagery,her poetic use of language enhances the story for me personally~Writer’s weave magic into the tapestry of a manuscript and all too often an editor destroys it by rigidly overworking it to death~The art of writing is a flow that forms in the imagination,interacts with experience and births itself upon the page~editing is of value and has a place within publishing (eg:a story written in fragments by one who has little understanding of English language yet tells a story that is important to share) but some writing is beyond the need for conventional correction,it is writing as an artistic process where they begin to use words in different ways than we would ordinarily use them~the craft of a wordweaver does not need correction,it destroys the creativity present in the gift of the writing~


    • Hello Tina, thank you for taking the trouble to comment, and thank you for being polite about it, not everyone is as you can see from Mitchell’s above! (I decided to publish that because it’s an amusing example of the kind of irrational comments I sometimes get from defenders of books I haven’t liked.)
      However, you are wrong in thinking that I had already decided not to like this book: I’ve read Of A Boy and thought it was a fine book (rating it 9 out of 10 in my journal), and I also liked Thursday’s Child (rating it 7) and Surrender (7). I was expecting Butterfly to be about YA themes which don’t interest me much and to have a straightforward narrative structure – but I was also expecting a book nominated for the Miles Franklin to be a very fine book indeed. Over the years I’ve read a great many books shortlisted for the MF and although some years are better than others they rarely disappoint. However I do not think that Butterfly was up to the standard of either of those as I was also disappointed by some of her other work i.e. The Dying Words of an Archangel and All My Dangerous Friends.
      I must also question your premise: you say ‘perhaps her syle is not to my taste’ – but it is my taste that I blog here. (See my review and comments policy). I write what I think, not what I think other people might think. They can write their own blogs! Those who visit my blog regularly have come to know my taste and they would be surprised if I suddenly started enthusing about YA books or ignoring badly edited work. Sonya Hartnett, for all her skills, needs a better editor, (or possibly a new one who doesn’t know her so well and can bring a fresh eye), one who will point out flaws and work with her to improve them. Even a ‘wordweaver’ doesn’t always get it right if the imagery comes across as clunky or forced, and as you can see, I have tackled Penguin, her publishers over it because it is their responsibility to look after their authors. Even a writer of great stature needs fearless editing sometimes, and if you look at the later work of Iris Murdoch who refused to let anyone touch her writing, you can see how a great writer’s oeuvre has been tainted by that refusal.
      But you’ll also see that I have tried to be fair. At the bottom of my post, which is about my opinion, I have referred readers to other sources with a more favourable opinion.


      • It was no trouble to comment and share my opinion on this book,it was a pleasure to share ideas and interact as blogs encourage us to do~I personally adored the story,I found it multi-layered and see that it encapsulated well the time & place in which it was set~Plum was irritating & obsessed with death and sex as many teens are yet endearing despite or perhaps because of her peculiar character~The dynamics of her teenage life & those within it overlapped the view into another more complicated story of her alluring neighbours sexual life and its implications upon her own unfolding grasp of adult life~I felt that this broadened the books appeal to adults as well as teenagers perhaps this ability to transcend genres within a single piece of work is why she is receiving high acclaim for her writing skill~Much of the wordplay that created imagery in my mind that enhanced the story for me was not to your liking and I can respect that this creative use of words does not appeal to all~Yet as a writer myself I know that one reaches a point where we pass from the functional and formalised use of language to delve into the dictionary as an artist draws unusual shades from the standard colours of a paintbox~Seeking to unleash cerebral illustrations that craft new uses of conventional language in a quest to embellish our imaginary journey into the realms of fiction~I stand by my opinion that editors have their place within publishing but the craft of wordweaving is the domain of the writer,I wonder if some writers work will only be embraced by those who are ready to view the world and all it encompasses through the mind of another that is vastly different to their own~


  8. Interesting that you say you like Surrender but not The Dying Words of an Archangel when the latter is an extract from the former and there are not many differences between the two.


    • Sorry, I read it too long ago, and I can’t really remember why now…


  9. […] Butterfly – Sonya Hartnett (Hamish Hamilton) (Update 10/6/16 See my review) […]


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