Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden
Published by Jacaranda, 2018
My Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rating this book has proven tricky, as there are elements of it that I loved, and elements that I found underwhelming and frustrating. The story follows Abeo, a young West African girl whose family falls on hard times in the 1980s. Her desperate father eventually sacrifices her to a religious shrine, where she endures physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; an ancient practice that was believed to atone for the sins of a family’s ancestors, thus breaking the chain of bad luck for future generations.
I thought the first half of the book was very strong. I quickly became invested in Abeo and her mother, and enjoyed McFadden’s unassuming prose, which is punctuated by moments of beauty. There’s a looming sense of threat as events begin to spiral beyond the characters’ control, and some very effective foreshadowing in a scene which sees the family visit a former prison for Africans who were to be sold into slavery. This introduced one of the book’s greatest thematic threads, in which McFadden draws parallels between events of the past, Abeo’s present, and our current day. It’s no mistake that the book was published now, after all. There are undeniable similarities to events that are playing out across the world today (we’ve all seen the plight of young refugees displaced by war, and the sickening images of migrant children seized by border authorities and placed in cages). The book serves as a powerful wake up call; an eye-opening look at the pattern of human error that echoes throughout time; the way in which we allow children to become collateral damage in the struggles, fears, and instabilities that arise with adult conflict. By educating ourselves about the past, we can better understand our present, and thus strive for better in the future.
Though the concept throws up a lot of potential for sensationalism, mercifully, I felt this was largely avoided. McFadden doesn’t shy away from the horrors that Abeo faces during her time in the shrine, but her somewhat distant, fast-moving narrative approach means we never become too bogged down by the harrowing details. What’s more, the book is always underpinned by a feeling of hope, with moments of kindness, and themes of sisterhood and recovery guiding us through the darkness.
The second half of the book focusses on the notion of facing up to the shame of our past, further enhancing the book’s thematic resonance. It moves very quickly, however. There are significant time jumps; important characters come and go without notice; and some of the book’s potential emotional development isn’t capitalised on. There is also a particular plot point that I felt was handled poorly; the one moment in which McFadden tipped into gratuitous suffering. It’s not the plot point itself that I took issue with. It felt inevitable, and made sense from a narrative perspective, but it could have been done in a way that was circumstantially in-keeping with the rest of the story, and no less tragic for it. Instead, it unfolded in a way that was entirely avoidable, making it feel needlessly cruel on the author’s part.
The book’s opening scene is bold, shocking, and instantly hooked me in. By contrast, I found the closing scene weak and clichéd. That, in essence, sums up my prevailing attitude towards the book as a whole. It starts strong, and has a lot of potential, but whilst its heart is in the right place, and it sets out to impart a commendable message, I found the execution left me wanting.
Overall, I’m glad this was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I hadn’t heard of it before, and likely wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, but I truly admire what McFadden was trying to say – even if the way she said it was a little clumsy at times.
You can pick up a copy of Praise Song for the Butterflies from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!