The NCRCL Book Review Series is written by NCRCL students. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions.
Review of Code Name: Butterfly (2016) by Ahlam Bsharat, translated from Arabic by Nancy Roberts
By Rebecca Sutton
Butterfly, whose ‘real’ name is never revealed, lives in occupied Palestine. We join her on the journey towards adulthood as she deals with common adolescent concerns such as periods, first crushes, friendships, identity and sexuality. Alongside these, and through the eyes of Butterfly, writer Ahlam Bsharat offers frank descriptions of less universal concerns, of the violence and conflict occurring in Palestine’s occupied territories. With graphic descriptions of a “massacre”, the death of Uncle Saleh who was shot “over and over” and the mine that caused Bakr to lose both his legs, this is no ordinary adolescent journey, but a seemingly commonplace one for teenagers in Palestine. The novel is clearly pro-Palestinian in its ideology with vivid first-hand experience from Bsharat woven in throughout.
However, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not the main focus; it is Butterfly’s inquiring mind, the questions she asks and the place where she stores these questions that occupy the main space of the narrative. Like many adolescents, she feels unable to talk to her parents, her siblings or friends, and so stores her questions and dreams in an imaginary treasure chest, which she declares almost full to bursting point. Herein lies the sadness: her questions are neither asked nor answered and her dreams are never shared, but by the end of the novel she realizes that grown-ups do not have all the answers and maybe more importantly, that they themselves have many unanswered questions of their own.
Butterfly’s reflections on adolescence and life under Israeli occupation are often both astute and amusing, and the butterfly motif employed throughout demonstrates perfectly the journey of a teenager moving towards adulthood, growing in strength and resilience, turning metaphorically from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. My one concern with this motif is that butterflies have such short life spans, and it may be for this reason in particular that Bsharat has chosen to use it.
The front cover ostensibly pitches the book to girls – the orange butterfly pattern and the blank silhouette of a youngish looking girl with a ponytail point to the younger end of the (female) Young Adult market. Many teenagers could, regardless of culture or knowledge of the Israel/Palestine situation, relate to the universal adolescent issues the novel addresses, whilst at the same time being exposed to the hardships and horror that young people in Palestine experience on a daily basis. Its content doesn’t make for an ‘easy’ read but it is a worthwhile one. The mission statement of publisher Neem Tree Press avows to produce books that “change and broaden perspectives” and that help us to “appreciate more deeply the world around us,” and Code Name: Butterfly certainly ticks those boxes. It is a welcome addition to the small number of Young Adult novels coming out of occupied Palestine.
About the Reviewer:
Rebecca Sutton is a first-year PhD student at the NCRCL. Her research is centered around contested space and identity in Young Adult Literature set in Israel/Palestine.
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A Favourite Re-Read: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It still astonishes me how brutal children can be; maybe not so astonishing after all, for they are only smaller people.
A Recent Discovery: The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis. Only published in the UK last year. Brilliantly quirky and original exploration of the Israel/Palestine conflict from the perspective of a cat who was once a girl…
Cover image via Neem Tree Press. Photograph provided by Rebecca Sutton.