Butterfly, A novel by 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. >>>
>>> Review originally published in Unlikely stories.