Sep 10, 2011

Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera – A Review

1998, General Fiction
 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 151 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-29186-0, Available on Amazon

I finished reading Butterfly Burning a few days ago, and I’m still struggling to describe what I read and how it affected me. The book’s description describes it as follows:
“Set in Makokoba, a black township [in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe], in the late l940s, the novel is an intensely bittersweet love story. When Fumbatha, a construction worker, meets the much younger Phephelaphi, he"wants her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him." He in turn fills her "with hope larger than memory." But Phephelaphi is not satisfied with their "one-room" love alone. The qualities that drew Fumbatha to her, her sense of independence and freedom, end up separating them. And the closely woven fabric of township life, where everyone knows everyone else, has a mesh too tight and too intricate to allow her to escape her circumstances on her own.”
This book is so much more than a love story between Phephelaphi and Fumbatha, I’d say that piece of it takes a backseat to the much larger story – the struggles a black underclass torn from the countryside and living in shanty towns, cobbling together some sort of humanity out of the inhumane, a woman’s burning for an existence independent of her lover, and self acceptance.
What’s gripping about this story is Yvonne Vera’s use of language and expression. On one hand it evokes such powerful imagery, at times I feel as though I really am in that time and place seeing first hand the events as they unfold. Here’s an example:
“Fumbatha sees the sky peel off the earth; that is the distance between the land and the sky. This hill is a surprise.
A hand swings forward and throws a heavy load. Another picks the tune and adds a word. A pristine word to a song makes everything poignant. The birth of a word is more significant than the birth of a child.”
And on the other, some parts leave me so befuddled; I have to read the passage multiple times to make sense of what exactly just happened. This makes me feel a little cheated because I’m obviously missing on what Vera is saying. At those moments I almost wish she used less lyricism to avoid obscuring the point she is trying to get across. So, it is in this vein I find myself bouncing between empathy for the characters and detachment from them.

I feel the tragedy and self-destruction of Phephelaphi’s life quite acutely, Vera is unflinching in her narrative.

This is definitely worth reading, but if you’re looking for a plot driven book this may not be for you. It has its highs and lows, and through it all one cannot deny the talent of Yvonne Vera. I have other titles by her to read, which I look forward to.


I'm looking forward to reading this one myself, it sounds really interesting even if it is a challenging read sometimes.

This is definitely one of those books where I'm dying to hear other views. I'd've loved to study this in a literature class or at least as part of a literary good. The poetry, allegories & so forth...I could go on.

I think you've captured the effects of Vera's language perfectly. Makes one feel close to but, also sometimes, detached from her characters. Her approach to the inner lives of her characters is intensely emotional. I echo your remarks about wanting to study her stuff in a literature class! Thanks and all the best.

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