You won’t catch me, Karma, I think. I won’t do anything bad!
Paper Butterflies is a heart-wrenching tale of child abuse and how downright unfair life can be. I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
We are thrown straight into the action, with a harrowing scene where Kathleen (the evil stepmother) is getting main character June ready for school, without allowing her to go to the toilet even though she’s desperate. June wets herself on the schoolbus, and is thereafter bullied for this incident as well as for the colour of her skin.
I jest that Kathleen was the typical evil stepmother, but she was genuinely despicable. It’s been a while since I’ve hated a villain as much as this, to the point where what happened to her didn’t feel like enough of a punishment. (If you want to feel scared, just go read the birthday cake scene.)
The whole way through, I was praying for June to tell someone about the abuse. It would have changed everything. Life was so unfair for June – her dad always took the side of the stepmother and stepsister (Megan), and teachers would suspend June rather than the bullies. Heathfield did an amazing job of getting into the head of a child, rocketing me back to childhood, when it feels like everyone is against you. June can’t catch a break – I was particularly angered by the family day out, when her dad spouted how Kathleen tried so hard and June made no effort.
While enjoying this book, I was suddenly ricocheted into the future. Furious, I skimmed the next few pages far too quickly to take the words in, then relaxed when we returned to June’s childhood. Chopping and changing between timeframes is one of my bookish pet hates. The chapters, or I suppose sections, are headed with ‘Before’ and ‘After’, which did make me wonder what the ‘During’ would be, but I would’ve preferred a chronological narrative. I didn’t need the words ‘Before’ and ‘After’ to tell me something huge was going to happen; I’d already worked that out for myself.
‘Where does the circle start, though? You suffered terribly, June. And I’ve no doubt that Kathleen suffered in her life too.’
‘No one is born bad, June.’
‘She was a vulnerable child once and I think someone probably hurt her too.’
‘No one could hurt her.’ Anger reaches up inside me.
Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Paper Butterflies is full of questions about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and about morality in general. Despite this, the characters are generally seen as Good or Evil – but I would argue this is only because that’s how a child sees the world.
I wish Megan had had more of a voice. I can definitely see why June would hate her, but I would have liked a chapter showing Megan’s thoughts (although I normally hate books that switch between first-person narratives!). I also guessed two major plot-points regarding Megan pretty early on.
One problem I had was the representation of ages, though it could be argued that June and Megan’s upbringings have made them seem younger than they are. Blister felt far too old – again, this could be due to the fact that he is one of the eldest of a large family and has never gone to school.
It was a lack of hope that kept me from giving the book 5 stars. It was so, so serious that although I felt sad, I didn’t feel truly emotional, and the ending fell flat. An ending like that should have made me teary, but it didn’t – and you all know how much I want sad books to make me cry!
I even felt like the ending should have been the opposite of what really happened (sentence structure is hard when you’re trying not to spoil things). Even though my preferred ending would have been more pessimistic and would have added to the lack of hope, it would have been more in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book.
This was a hard book to rate because I thought it was fabulously written and I was rooting for June all the way through, but I also had a lot of cons, and it made me feel a bit sad rather than really emotional. I therefore gave it 4.5/5.