Black Butterflies, Priscilla Morris ( June 2023 )
Review of Black Butterflies, Priscilla Morris
Whether or not we remember it, are too young to remember it, or have any personal connections with this part of South East Europe, it felt like we all learned something of value in reading this book set in the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-96). It is a piece of history that is seldom remembered, so kudos to Priscilla Morris for gathering multiple stories from her own family and others to create this fictional insight.
This one was also much easier to ‘grade’, with 82% of votes being 4 /5 or higher – in fact 40% were a full 5/5. The remaining 18% had some valid criticisms but it’s fair to say there were NO terrible reviews, everyone found something to enjoy in it. Some might argue it was altogether a bit ‘light’ but the upside of that is that it reaches a far wider audience.
Black Butterflies apparently took around 13 years to complete and this comes across, it is chock full of small but significant incidents and details. It has the full historical context, a range of characters, and several bits of symbolism and underlying themes ( importance of art and books, isolation, sense of self and … bridges?). If anyone hasn’t read it, the ‘black butterflies’ are the charred remains of books and art which were burned during the attacks on the city.
Some enjoyed Zora’s slightly detached character, others found her a bit cold – but whatever reaction she elicited in us, she was definitely created that way on purpose. Similarly her relationship with the bookish Mirsad was seen by some as understandable and poignant, by others as unrealistic. Ultimately, we don’t know how we would react in this sort of enforced isolation and desperation, so it was a valid and interesting debate!
Morris’s narrative describing the conditions in the city was authentic and engaging, with memorable images. As a reminder of the current Ukraine war, it felt particularly poignant, and indeed humbling given our own home comforts in a (currently) non war- zone city. There are also some interesting parallels with the ethic diversity in Sarajevo, compared to our own tribal divisions – as Morris describes it, like “flour and sugar in a cake” and impossible to separate.
One thing that we all agreed on ( I think!) was the strange insertion of Mirsad’s retelling of a local folk tale – it was dark, unsettling and perhaps didn’t illuminate her point in the way she intended. But that is a minor niggle. ( And it was easy to skip)
There were lots of interesting sidenotes and areas to explore from this discussion, I’ve listed what I can remember below and thank you all, as always, for your fabulous contributions to the debate.
Other Books / Culture around this history
Kiss the Future : U2’s documentary about the siege ( also a much covered song, Miss Sarajevo)
Quo Vadis Aida : a film ( on Netflix) about Sbrenica in Bosnia
The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht
Catch the Rabbit, Len Bastasic ( set in Dublin / road trip to Bosnia)
Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power