‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett

2009, 215 p.

I don’t think I want to live in Sonya Hartnett’s worlds.  They’re brutal places where damaged children are lacerated by cruelty and neglect, and where as a reader you start to feel as if you have no skin.  This is the third Hartnett I have read and I feel as if I am reading the same book over and over. I’m starting to wonder if there’s something rather unhealthy about her work.

This has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and as my annual torment, I  try to read the shortlist before the winner is announced.  I doubt if I’ll succeed this year, but I’ll give it my best shot.  This is not the first time Hartnett has been shortlisted for major awards- she was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin for  ‘Of a Boy’ in 2003 which at the time I wondered about, and was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year for ‘Surrender’ in 2005, and at the time I thought that she had a real chance of winning.

And now ‘Butterfly’.  Again I find myself raising a quizzical eyebrow and wondering “Mmm- Miles Franklin?”.  The book started off badly for me because I loathe books that start off with a character regarding themselves in the mirror then proceeding to describe everything they see.  In my list of writing sins  this comes pretty close to the top, followed closely by describing food and Hartnett does quite a bit of that too.  I’m as entranced by the “lyrical” novel as much as the next reader but her images and metaphors just sit on the page, indigestible and distracting.  Even the name annoys me:  “Plum”. I felt very much as if I was reading a Donna Parker book from my early adolescence and despite the frequent references to the heat, I felt as if it was set in 1960s America- perhaps it was the double storey house that did it? It’s written in the present tense which is another narrative technique that makes me fidget.

For probably 2/3 of the book I was very close to giving up on it- and that’s from someone who rarely fails to finish a book.  I kept reading and finally, in the last part of the book it did click, after all.   But I’m not convinced that a book shortlisted for the Miles Franklin should take 130 pages to engage its reader.

I’m no longer an adolescent girl of course, and thank God. Yes, I know that friendship is hard, and that hanging round with a large-ish group of girls as I did in high school had its own perils and insecurities.  It hurts to think back, and I’m pricked by my own embarrassment and shamed by times when I behaved just as badly to others.   Would it have helped to read about it at the time? I don’t know.  Do I want to read about it now? No.

3 responses to “‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett

  1. Couldn’t have put it better myself!

  2. Hmmm … I have yet to read a Hartnett, but I must say that, before Lisa’s review, I picked it up because of the shortlisting but then put it down. Neither Lisa’s review, nor yours, is making me feel I made a mistake. I don’t mind coming of age novels but this doesn’t sound like it’s got anything particularly special about it.

  3. residentjudge

    If I was going to read one, I’d go for “Surrender”. I wonder if “The Silver Donkey”breaks out of this damaged-child genre because it sounds a bit more historical.

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