Set against the Second World War, BUTTERFLY is a haunting love story a la Romeo and Juliet of the Orient. A love that cannot be but a love that will grow old during the most devastating war in history.
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War/Sino-Japanese war (1931-1945), the story centres around the fatal love between a married Chinese woman and a young Japanese soldier. However, the fantastic tale is not as simple as its plot suggests. In the forties of the 20th century, one summer day, on the bending shore of the magical, eternal river Yangtze, a woman met a young stranger she falls in love with. But he can’t love her back, and she can’t love him if she would have known why he has hunted her down all over China to tell her a dark secret…
Butterfly is a modern fairy tale that explores passion beyond all forbidden boundaries and love tested to its limits to defy even death. Taking a stab at sensitive historical, social issues such as the Rape of Nanking, the question arises, what is love? Where is the salvation in all the heartlessness of mankind? Are we able to love, a deed that is so often taken for granted? Perhaps love is neither simple nor always pleasant or even inhuman. In the end the protagonists have to undergo a metamorphosis in order to be reunited again on the bank of the Yangtze river where they met seven decades ago.
Butterfly -- Julie O'Yang
The title of Julie O’Yang’s beautiful, passionate and fascinating new novel is initially quite deceptive. It will eventually make sense to those who take the time to read through a narrative so rich in image and experience that it’s almost poetic first and foremost, but just looking at the cover reveals nothing. Some titles reveal too much. Others are intriguing in their ambiguity. Anything from either of those camps can get your attention for different reasons. Something as simple as Butterfly can have a thousand possibilities surrounding it. O’Yang clearly has reasons for choosing it, and those reasons are important, but the title is really just a formality. You aren’t going to know what’s waiting for you until you dive in to her original, lovingly detailed story and characters. As you read further along, and with Butterfly this is quite easy to do, a title like Butterfly becomes more than its most simple definition. It cuts away those thousand possibilities, but leaves behind several intriguing ideas.
Butterfly is a book that reminds you of the joy of discovering a treasure, and wondering why there aren’t a few hundred-thousand more who have already found it before you. The book was only released last year, but it continues to slowly build an audience who still understand the thrill and gratitude behind discovering writers through simple happenstance. Julie O’Yang words wear a collective heart on their sleeve, and it doesn’t take very long at all to be pulled head-first into this novel.
To call Butterfly a love story is a fine means of introducing its basic plot, but it goes much deeper than that. To call O’Yang’s considerable writing achievement a love story set against a historical backdrop, as difficult to capture in fiction as that of the World War II/Sino-Japanese war is a little closer, but it’s still not the sum of what this book accomplishes. Indeed, this is a good place for the reader to start, a place to bring us into the affairs of its two main characters, an older Chinese woman brought to the point of collapse by insurmountable heartbreak, and a much-younger Japanese soldier who harbors his own tragedies and secrets. These are characters strong enough to carry their own separate stories. Woven together by O’Yang’s spirited, multi-layered narrative they create an account of complex, dangerous love that fleshes them out as fully as a character could ever hope to be. A great story springs from their romance, and it could have held together a novel even longer than the one O’Yang released. It’s not much of a knock against a story when the worst thing you can say is that it left you wanting more. What we do have is a story whose soul simply has riches to spare. It gives us a tightly-written-yet-profound beginning, middle and end.
Nothing is wasted in terms of plot, characters, dialog and even metaphor. Nothing is taken for granted. What we do take from Butterfly, particularly the ending, is what we take from any work of art whose impact on us is this substantial. We see an entire world opened up for us through a singular work of fiction, and we can’t believe that it’s actually been there the whole time. It just takes writers like O’Yang to flip the light switch on.
Gabriel Ricard in Unlikely Stories
My dream is yours … or, butterfly kisses …
Isn’t it quite amazing how the appearance of a butterfly can inject a stutter or pause into any conversation? Words and words pour out of the animals in assembly, before they are all of a sudden arrested by the passing flight. Heads turn to trace a lilting poetics, attempting to close the distance with this seemingly awkward beauty. There are no straight lines here, only a relative arrival and departure to bracket a brilliant and bewildering trajectory, surging and lurching in a vibrating and nomadic line avant la lettre.
(Sean Smith, ‘I Seek You: Countdown to Stereoscopic Tear’)
Confronting us with its subtitle, Butterfly foregrounds itself as nothing more, nor less, than a novel—allowing, inviting, us to flutter through its tale. Keeping in mind that what is novel is also new; whilst never forgetting Umberto Eco’s teaching that “what is new is old.” It is, after all, a revisiting of the past—the Second World War & Sino-Japanese War (1931-45). But also constantly reminds us that all revisitings always already occur in the present, haunted by the possibility of revisions, revisionism, spectral visions.
Butterfly: fluttering between ripping and crying: a stereoscope to tears: hearing ruptures whilst glimpsing tears; bears witness to tearing whilst tuning to registers of weeping. Attempting to inscribe some of the different calls of history—some of the cries of stories forgotten. Sometimes, difficult tales, tales that resist being told—Nanking amongst them. And in her tale, surrounded by inhumanity that is war, Julie O’Yang opens the dossier of the most human of all notions: love. By asking the difficult question of ‘amidst all of this madness, what is love?’
Never letting us forget Ian Curtis’ warning that “love will tear us apart.”
For, to love one has to attend to—without subsuming another, some other, under ourselves. Which means that to love, one has to be willing to risk oneself, to open oneself, to allow oneself to be wounded, torn apart. In new ways, ways that we have yet to understand, come across, ways we do not yet have a name for.
Never letting us forget that writing itself is haunted by echoes of scribere; scratching, tearing.
And it is this task that O’Yang sets herself: responding to the unknown in both history and to the story that she is attempting to tell. Which is why the novel can never do anything other than move, touch, respond to the in between. In this sense, the novel itself is precisely the relation between her story and history. Which is why “a few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interest of the truth” (165). For the truth is precisely in its telling: never forgetting that we are also never using our own language—borrowed, stolen, an act of memory.
Not in the banal post-modern sense that all truths are constructed, composed, narrated. But more profoundly that truth itself is a name for what is yet to be named—“avant la lettre.”
And if truth is a name for something that is yet to have a name, this suggests that it is a future possibility—a dream. Which is why there was no other way for Butterfly to end but with a tale on dreams, dreams of butterflies.
Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then he awoke. Now he wonders: Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man.
But just because it is all quite possibly a dreams doesn’t mean that one is free from risks. For, one must never forget that if it is always only to come, one can never be sure of what awaits—one can also never be sure if one is always only waiting. And in opening oneself to possibility, one is always also opening oneself up to being touched by another: for, if dreams are potentialities to come, one’s dreams and another’s might well be the same dream.
To dream—to love.
But most of all, one can never be sure if one might just awake.
I met you in my dreams.
If I had known that I was dreaming,
I would not have woken.
I miss you.
(Japanese 12th Century poem)
Jeremy Fernando in Singapore Review of Books
This is the one of the few books I have read of non- Indian contemporary authors in recent times, and it was a good decision to pick it up. And I must admit one thing, the difference in the writing is so very evident. If one were to read an Indian and a non-Indian book, s/he could very well recognise it without even knowing if the author is Indian or not. Authored by the gracious looking and talented Julie O' yang, this book flows like poetry. It reminds you of silken sheets, sumptuous wine and things that soothe your nerves, like Beethoven and
yet, you are more than aware of your surroundings.
Such is the beauty of this novel. I was introduced to it over a Kindle version and it is the first time I used it. Thanks to the Kindle App in my Android phone! I read it over a period of twelve nights. And I almost had to drag myself to sleep. It is the kind of book that requires you to hold the character's hand and walk with them..at different stages and with different characters. So by the
time you snap out of it, you realize you are a changed person. You can almost feel the difference in you, like you have moved on, and that like a butterfly, your journey is meant to go on, from one place to the other. The book is a tragic, yet an enduring account of a Chinese woman- about her journey through forbidden love, loss of her child, rejection and humiliation of the society. All
this with the background of The Second World War- The Sino-Japanese War when
Manchuria is occupied by the Japanese. So, reading this book became even more
delightful as I could feel the cultural interventions and intermingling going on. The constraints, the frictions have been beautifully structured in the book
by Julie. Love, Lust, Anger, Pain and Hope would stain your eyes time and again, as you experience them along with the character every now and then. This is the kind of book that you read from cover to cover and when you are done, it changes you. Transforms you.From Cover to Cover.
I highly recommend this book to every artist- be it a painter, a writer, a
scribbler, sculptor. Anyone who knows art, the art that transcends beyond words, horizons and boundaries. I did not find a single spelling error in the book. It feels good to know that such books are still made. And there are just about enough readers to enjoy them. The rest shall fade down soon. But this one book, has a long long way to go. Thumbs up!