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Butterfly Burning, by Yvonne Vera.

November 12, 2013

Butterfly Burning, by Yvonne Vera.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2000), Edition: 1st, Paperback, 144 pages.


A lyrical novel about an African township in the 1940s by a Zimbabwe woman.  A story of pain transformed into beauty.

Yvonne Vera was born in Bulawayo and is the author of several novels.   Her style is fluid and intense. Surrealistic details make her words more like poetry than prose.  The pain present in the lives of a few of those who deal in the township is powerfully described, but in her hands, beauty is also present.  She writes lyrically of trains, the lure of the city, and children happily playing.

The central story is about Fumbatha, an older man, and Phephelaphi, the young woman whom he saw rise from the river one day.

It was the brightest morning for Fumbatha, her eyes glittering like jewels before him, her arms the same color as the rock on which she rested…. She was sunlight.

He desired to possess her more than he had ever wanted anything other than land.  Without any family of her own, Phephelaphi moved in with him.  She was moderately happy, but never as entranced by him as he is by her.  “She felt safe in his adoration.”   When Fumbatha was away working at hard labor, she was drawn to the hut of a woman who provides men with illegal drink and soulful music.

When the music tears into the room she almost falls to the floor in agony.  It hits her like a hammer, a tree felled, even though the noise is far and low and way back beneath her eyes where it trickles like a stream.  Stunned, wounded, she holds on to the door while she listens to the stream grow into a river and shift every boulder, every firm rock in her body.  It leaves a tunnel, an empty tunnel she fills with a far-flung desire.

Phephelaphi wanted more than the township can offer, and readers easily empathizes with her.

She wanted an opportunities to be a different woman and 1948 was a year when hope opened like a bright sky and an educated black woman could do more….She was nothing now….She wanted to be something with an outline, and even though she was not sure what she meant, she wanted some respect, some respect, some balance and power of her own.

Her dreams lead her into the powerful heartbreak and tragedy of the book.  It is not a tragedy that can be blamed on colonialism or white domination, but one that rests within us all.  Not all dreams can come true, but there can be beauty even in when they die.

This is an exquisite book, but not for every reader perhaps.  I recommend it to those who enjoy fine literature and who are able and willing to face its pain.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2013 1:02 pm

    Interesting, I have not read anything from Yvonne Vera yet. Sound interesting. I hope to be able to enjoy it.

  2. December 7, 2013 11:18 am

    I love Yvonne Vera’s work and you’re right — they’re not for everyone. I recommend her other novel, The Stone Virgins. Thanks for the review.

  3. December 9, 2013 2:32 pm

    I have The Stone Virgins on my wishlist.
    And thank you for all the guidance i have gotten from you as I have begun to read African authors.

  4. August 12, 2014 9:07 am

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while now. Thanks for the great review, Marilyn.

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