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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Butterfly Burning

Yvonne Vera

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To purchase Butterfly Burning

Title: Butterfly Burning
Author: Yvonne Vera
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 151 pages
Availability: Butterfly Burning - US
Butterfly Burning - UK
Butterfly Burning - Canada
Papillon brûle - France
Schmetterling in Flammen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

C+ : painfully lyrical

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
VLS A 26/9/2000 Michelle Cliff
The World & I A 6/1999 Charles R. Larson
World Lit. Today A Winter/2000 Adele S. Newson

  Review Consensus:

  Very enthusiastic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vera explodes myths of womanhood and romance, and realistically and unsentimentally depicts the price women may pay for their longing to become someone, to decolonize themselves." - Michelle Cliff, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Nowhere is Vera's decision to return to Bulawayo and write about the city's history more successful than in the novel's many descriptive passages. Squalor, violence, pollution -- much of Bulawayo is not a pretty place. Yet through Vera's eyes the prosaic becomes poetic, the ugly not beautiful but at least capable of providing refuge for its black majority. (...) Butterfly Burning leaves an indelible impression on the reader." - Charles R. Larson, The World & I

  • "(R)ichly poetic while also brutally realistic. Her depictions of township life, of the longings and of the search for security that motivates her characters, are presented within a historical context that charges her evocations with anticipation. (...) In Butterfly Burning her style is characteristically rich in description, lean on dialogue, and explosive with content, powerfully presenting society's taboos and the mores of township life. This newest novel is a compelling work of fiction." - Adele S. Newson, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in the mid-1940s, in the black township of Makokoba in Bulawayo (Rhodesia), Butterfly Burning tells the story of the love between the 50-year old Fumbatha and the much younger Phephelaphi Dube. It is not a time or a place for happy love stories, and Fumbatha and Phephelaphi don't beat the odds.
       Vera fairly effectively captures the difficult life in the township, and the efforts of those that live there to maintain some sort of humanity, sometimes barely even realizing what they are up against:

The work is not their own: it is summoned. The time is not theirs: it is seized. The ordeal is their own. They work again and again, and in unguarded moments of hunger and surprise, they mistake their fate for fortune.
        Young Phephelaphi, in particular, has ambition and hopes -- but Vera warns early on: "Trust lovers to nurture hope till it festers." Around Phephelaphi are already a number of beaten and defeated souls, characters who make do as best they can.
       Fumbatha and Phephelaphi stumble across each other and fall in love. They are, briefly, happy. Fumbatha was "a man who made, and unmade, his own mind," while "Phephelaphi was a woman who chose her own destination and liked to watch the horizon change from pale morning to blue light."
       Among Phephelaphi's ambitions is to become a nurse. Problems arise, and she deals with them herself -- one in particularly gruesome fashion. It is too much for Fumbatha. Love falters, fails.
       It is a fairly simple story, but written with a grand, poetic sweep. "She is naked except for the weight of her own suffering, the weight of courage" and so on. The sentences are short. Each is pregnant with meaning and metaphor. Budding. Bursting. Overflowing.
       The novel's own gravity drags it down. Its portentousness prefigures its own doom. It is deadly serious. There is nothing wrong with being deadly serious, but it is not a justification in and of itself either: there has to be more.
       Yes, there is language. A fine use of language. Sort of. Poetic, one can call it. Lyrical. Undermining as much as supporting the tale being told. Certainly, it is a matter of taste, too.
       There's a rhythm to the language -- though Vera's is an odd staccato. It has the effect, here, of a pneumatic hammer. Relentless. Incessant. Wearying. But when it breaks the reader down it does not do so in support of the text, but against it.
       Vera writes:
       Fumbatha sees the sky peel off the earth; that is the distance between the land and the sky. The 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.
       Vera's emphasis is on the birthing of words and expressions and turns of phrase. Despite her claim (her justification, in fact) such births are not more significant than the birth of a child. They can be, but only in exceptional circumstances, and Vera's circumstances here are not exceptional enough. Indeed, behind her thick veil of lyricism they are surprisingly plain. She does a disservice to reader and story alike by wrapping it all up in the obscuring and not quite poetic enough language.
       So, in more ways than one, Butterfly Burning is, ultimately, a novella of miscarriages, of clumsy, painful abortions.

       There is something to be said for Vera's approach and language (though we obviously don't know what that might be). She has some sense of language and expression, and the writing is not without talent. But the novel reads as though it were meticulously chiselled out of stone and then finely buffed -- leaving it still solid and completely lifeless. The novel appears to be art, but it is complete artifice. Some people clearly do enjoy "poetic" presentation of this sort -- many of the critics expressed admiration for it -- , but readers should be aware of what they are in for.

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Butterfly Burning: Reviews: Yvonne Vera: Other books by Yvonne Vera under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Yvonne Vera was born in 1964 in Bulawayo, in what is now Zimbabwe, and died in 2005. She studied at York University, Toronto, and is the author of several acclaimed novels.

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