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,  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??
 ‘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.
Author: Sonya Hartnett
Publisher: Penguin 2009
Source: Kingston Library