The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender
Published by Hutchinson, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A quiet exploration of family, trauma, and mental health, The Butterfly Lampshade follows Francie as she reflects on a particularly upsetting and unusual string of events that took place some 20 years prior. Then aged just 8, Francie was sent to live with her aunt and uncle following her mother’s latest and most severe psychotic break, which resulted in her hospitalisation. In the days immediately following this incident, Francie became convinced that a real butterfly emerged from the design on her babysitter’s lampshade, and a beetle crawled from an image on a piece of paper. Years later, she experienced something similar, with a rose appearing to fall from the fabric of a pair of curtains.
As an adult, Francie seeks to understand what these incidences mean about her own mental state and place within the world. Bender ensures they remain suitably mysterious, allowing us to question and interpret the possible answers for ourselves. I’m aware this all makes the novel sound rather odd and otherworldly, but the majority of its pages are in fact dedicated to very real and poignant reflections on Francie’s complex relationship with her mother. There is subtle but wonderful commentary on the stigma of mental health, the lingering influence of childhood trauma, and how closely fear, guilt, and love can intertwine when it comes to family.
Events play out in a fragmented, non-linear fashion. This cleverly reflects the nature of memory – which is itself a major theme within the novel – as Francie dips in and out of the past to piece together what happened all those years ago. Though much more character focussed than it is plot driven, a couple of scenes in particular really hit me in the gut, as underplayed revelations hint at just how much Francie continues to be influenced by her childhood.
Although the book is usually described as magical realism, I’m not sure that’s quite the right name for it. Francie is very much aware that the strange events mentioned are, indeed, strange. Not only does she discuss them with others, she actively seeks to understand what they may mean. As per the rest of the novel, the outcome of this search is deliberately understated, with the nature of the butterfly etc. left largely to the reader’s interpretation. To me, the butterfly, beetle, and rose were symbols of Francie’s disjointed sense of self; physical manifestations that essentially served as placeholders for her unaddressed trauma, as she was jolted from one life to another. It is only by interrogating the memories attached to them that she will learn to make peace and move on.
This was my first foray into Bender’s work, and I get the impression it’s less overtly strange than some of her other releases (despite what my review may imply). That said, I found it magnetic and affecting, and I would certainly consider diving into her back catalogue.