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The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

This downright original book was recommended to me by a beloved friend who, when I asked her to describe it, struggled to find the words. In fact, she kept using contradictory language and that had me intrigued. Not only because someone who I admire for her use of language found it hard to put this novel into words, but also because those that she chose were binary opposites: beautiful/ugly; horrific/marvellous etc.

29981261Basically, the novel focuses on a young woman named Maya who is rescued from what’s clearly a protracted and shocking abusive environment by the FBI. From the outset, the reader is plunged into the first of many interviews between two agents, Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison and the frank and bold survivor of this abuse, Maya.

Kidnapped years earlier, Maya is one of many young women who find themselves trapped in what’s, aesthetically at least, a paradisial garden. Fed, clothed and cared for by a man they call “The Gardener”, the girls are given new names and tattooed with elaborate butterflies before being raped. From that point on, they’re expected to be at the brutal but also charming and considerate (in his eyes) man’s beck and call and that of his vicious son, Avery.

The story of the continued abuse and the relationships that develop between the girls unfolds slowly throughout the interviews with the agents as does Maya’s background.

While the tale itself is utterly awful, the writing – and the way Maya tells it to the FBI agents and the way her history and that of the other girls, as well as the awful fates some meet – is tragically lyrical, sometimes humorous and even, as odd and distasteful as it sounds, lovely. Not what The Gardener or his son do to the girls, but how they manage it – how Maya copes and the strategies she and the other butterflies put in place to simply survive and not be broken by the circumstances they find themselves in – even when they know the only way to escape the heavenly hell they find themselves in is to die.

Some of the girls have fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome; most, however, rely on each other for fortitude and friendship and that deep bond that arises through sharing tragedy and when hope is but a distant dream. It is this – the close attachments formed between the girls, the ways they use memories to sustain themselves and willingly adopt the identities given to protect their “real” selves that is both powerful, incredibly moving and beautiful.

I have never read a book quite like this and it’s hard to put down. I know it will haunt me for days. It has twists and turns, and operates much like a psychological thriller, but it’s also expressive and literary. I once described J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as the most wonderful book about the most awful people I have ever read. I think The Butterfly Farm is similar in that it is a mesmerising book that manages to be both poetic and dreamlike when it covers a subject (and introduces characters) that is the stuff of nightmares.

My friend was right to struggle to describe this book, and to use contrary words when she did. It is a contradiction, a powerful one that works so well and is very original. Four and half stars.

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