AiW Guest: Anthea Gordon
Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda, 2015) is primarily a story about Joy, a London-based photographer whose only friend is her eccentric elderly neighbour, Mrs. Harris. Then Joy’s mother dies unexpectedly, leaving her a bemusing inheritance, which includes Joy’s grandfather’s diary and a sculpture of a Benin brass head. A chain of perplexing events unfolds, leading Joy to dig into her past and that of her family in Nigeria, all the while struggling to cope with the aftermath of her mother’s sudden death.
The book opens with the image of an empty palm wine bottle rolling down a London street. It is an incongruous detail which nevertheless sets the scene for the atmosphere of mystery and magic that follows. It is also perhaps a nod to Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), often labelled the original African magical realist novel.
In Butterfly Fish, the elements of the magical are presented as something unreal, yet they are also a part of the ordinariness of experience and intrusions from the past. As such, Okojie’s lyrical style and the mixed trajectories of past and present stories question oppositions between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, ‘magic’ and ‘ordinary’.
Towards the start of the book, the pivotal moments preceding Joy’s discovery of her mother’s dead body oscillate between the dull and surreal. The crass banality of Joy eating in front of the TV, ‘wearing my white vest littered with fluorescent Wotsit crumbs’ (16), prefigures the unreal moment when Joy arrives at her mother’s house later that same day to find her mother dead. Starting from this almost improper detail of the everyday, ordinary things seem doubled as Joy travels to see her mother while still, at this point, unaware of what’s to come: a traffic light ‘began to throb, like a pulse’, laughter from the TV ‘was bleeding’ through the front door, her dressing gown ‘pooled around her’ (16-17).
When Joy goes swimming in her local pool to distract herself from the pain of her mother’s death, the scene oscillates from the ordinary to the magical, starting with a prosaic outburst by a group of teenagers, who are also in the pool: ‘Shit! There’s a fish in the water’ (24). The scene shifts between the everyday and the extraordinary, with Joy closely observing the fish’s bequest of a key: ‘A crowd gathered around us. The fish’s mouth opened repeatedly. It trembled, then heaved and a worn, brass key slick with gut slime fell out of its mouth into my hand’ (24).
The key turns out to enact the link between this world and that of the past and of the spirits. The story of the Oba in nineteenth century Benin, and the decline of this world, runs parallel to the contemporary narratives of Joy in London, her mother Queenie’s early days in 1970s London, and the chapters excerpting Joy’s grandfather’s diary of his time in the Nigerian army. These narratives are brought together when Joy is transported to meet the Oba Odion, who is driven mad by a curse. The key enables Joy to unlock the gates to the palace and escape from the world of dreams.
The shifts between the different time periods and multiple characters’ perspectives has the effect of blurring the generations. In this way, Butterfly Fish is a reflection of the workings of memory – and of the ways in which history can be understood through both individual memory and the collective memory embodied in stories passed down from parent to child. As Alan Ryder puts it in the Foreword to Iro Eweka’s Dawn to Dusk: Folktales from Benin (1998): ‘In Benin, the impact of the outside world during the 20th century has inevitably fractured many of the links which formerly ensured the transmission of its traditions and the passing of generations makes it ever more difficult to restore them’ (x).
The question of the link between the real and the apparently unreal is also a means to unpack complex human experiences of grief and depression. As Joy’s grief deepens, and as she delves further into her family’s past, she is accompanied by a spirit, whom she names Anon. Later, Joy goes to see a doctor for help with her depression. Okojie contrasts the doctor’s diagnosis of Joy’s ‘mental health problems’ and need for medication with Joy’s own sense of the reality of Anon.
The immediate discrepancy between the doctor’s questions and the appearance of Anon right beside him presents the differing senses of reality. The presence of the supernatural suggests that different, and often contradictory, truths and viewpoints coexist. Whilst Anon may only be an image that can be blinked away by Joy – and one that remains unseen by the doctor – she is nevertheless more than simply an image.
The final chapter, ‘Clay’, details Joy’s return to Benin in the present day, and starts by explaining why Filo, one of Oba Odion’s wives, fled the palace, escaping its curse. Anon turns out to be another of the Oba’s wives, Adesua, who goes with Joy to enact a return to her resting place. This mingling of previously un-integrated narratives gives credence to the seemingly mythic story of the Oba’s palace in colonial Benin; it is not a mere story, but something that inflects the landscape even today. The narrative culminates in the burial of the brass head sculpture – a putting to bed of the troubles of the past: ‘We buried the brass head deep in the ground. When we came up for air, Anon had stopped crying and was offering her limbs to the torchlight’ (342). Butterfly Fish blends the real and the magical, offering a lyrical exploration of the dynamism of contemporary London and the rich histories and stories of Nigeria.
Anthea Gordon used to live in Nigeria where she worked for Cassava Republic Press. She has a Master’s degree from King’s College London, and is currently living in Nepal.
“Irenosen Okojie is a writer, curator and Arts Project Manager. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian and the Observer.” You can learn more about Okojie’s writing at jacarandabooksartsmusic.co.uk.
Categories: Reviews - Books