Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
BETTY TRASK AWARD WINNER 2016
A fragile outsider living in London, Joy struggles to pull the threads of her life back together after her mother’s sudden death. Emptiness consumes her and, needing to fill the gaps of her loss, she finds she is drawn to a unique artefact inherited from her mother – a warrior’s head cast in brass that belonged to a king in eighteenth century Benin, Nigeria.
Joy is haunted by a beautiful young woman who appears in her photographs, familiar yet beguilingly distinct, the woman trails her wherever she goes. Joy begins to dream of a different time, a different place. She feels an inexplicable pull towards this mysterious female, and a past revealing itself through clues is scattered in her path. As family secrets come to light, she unearths the ties between her mother, grandfather, the wife of the king, a fearsome warrior, and the brass head’s pivotal connection to them all.
Haunting and compelling, Butterfly Fish is a richly told story of love and hope; of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone.
Butterfly Fish is a blend of various ear’s and spans between London and Benin. I think the synopsis is immediately eye-catching and extremely unique. The author has done a fantastic job of weaving modern day London, 1950s London and 19th century Benin.
The novel opens with Joy in modern-day London. She is overcoming the death of her mother and it has been a painful process. She is helped by neighbourhood eccentric Mrs Harris. Who plays the role of lonely old lady, perfectly!
“I just feel . . . abandoned” – Joy
The novel also jumps to 19th Century Benin and the community of Esan. It follows the story of Adesua whom becomes the king’s 8th wife. Adesua is beautiful and yet a tomboy. I knew instantly there would be more to her character than meets the eye.
‘The fall of a great kingdom did not always start with war’
Joy is summoned to her mother’s solicitor’s Mervyn. So that he may go through the will with Joy and explain the items. Mervyn is an old family friend, and this eases the process for Joy. What she discovers does not.
Joy’s mother has left her, her house £80K, her grandfather’s diary and a brass head artefact. But what does it all mean?
‘Maybe dead people left behind puzzles for their loved ones all the time’ – Joy
Adesua must navigate her new life and with rumours and speculation surrounding the king, it does not come easy. The narrative of 19th century Benin is brought alive on the page and I could never do it justice here. But the full story of the king, his wives and their lives is revealed. The writing is beautiful and very descriptive, I found it hard to believe this is a debut novel.
There is a third narrative and that is the story of Queenie who comes to London in the 1950s from Lagos. She is pre-warned of the miserable weather and frosty reception. She finds work and meets new people and her story begins to develop.
The beauty of this novel is how the three women’s lives collide. What unites Queenie, Joy and Adesua lies in the diaries of Peter Lowon. Joy’s search for her own history and place in the world leads her to its pages.
A beautifully told story from an author with a very bright future ahead of her. 4*
Irenosen Okojie will be appearing at the Queen’s Park Book Festival
Sunday 1st July at 3:30pm- 4;30pm – Link to event
Event’s Website – Twitter
One of the country’s brightest new talents Irenosen Okojie talks about her writing with Shyama Perera and reads from her latest work. Irenosen’s debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.