Butterfly Fish, the debut novel from British-Nigerian writer, Irenosen Okojie is described, tantalizingly, as a ‘dual narrative of contemporary London and 18th century Benin’, a mouth-watering historical conceit that promises a lot – and in large part is fulfilled, because this is a truly captivating novel and an amazing debut.
Starting life as a short story, which took almost six years to write and involved a lot of research on the Benin empire, Butterfly Fish is told in three parts – Part 1: Modern London, London 1970s and 19th Century Benin; Part 2: Modern London, Lagos 1950s and 19th Century Benin; Part 3: Modern London and Lagos 1950s. It begins in modern day London. The main character, Joy, has recently (and unexpectedly) lost her mother, Queenie. It has just been Joy and Queenie from day one – Joy never knew her father. It’s clear Joy is struggling with her mother’s sudden death. Joy is also going through depression and Okojie captures her struggles with depression, along with the loss of her mother, in a way that allows you to feel for Joy, without feeling sorry for her. Joy is a broken character – there is no doubt about that – but she is able in some way to deal with the loss in her life through her neighbor – Mrs. Harris – a fascinating character, who has her own secrets.
Butterfly Fish has a vivid roster of characters – Joy, Queenie, Mrs. Harris, Mervyn, Adesua, and her husband, Oba Odion and his other seven wives (Adesua is number 8), and Peter Lowon, who we meet through his journal entries, to name a few. Despite the multitudinous periods, locations and characters, the narrative never confuses, and Irenosen delivers prose that is easy to follow and beautiful to read.
In one instance, as we witness the protagonist, Joy dealing with the loss of her mother, Okojie briefly introduces Adesua – the young woman who will soon become the eighth wife of the Oba in 19th century Benin. Not before we are whisked back to Joy, who heads to Mervyn – a lawyer and her mum’s Jamaican friend – who has been in Joy’s life even before she was born. Here he presents Joy with her mother’s will, in which Joy has been left with everything her mother had – £80,000, her house and all the contents within it, a brass head artefact and her grandfather, Peter Lowon’s, diary. It is this inheritance that connects modern day London with 19th century Britain; and Peter Lowon’s diary – which connects 1950s Lagos with London. In Butterfly Fish – 19th century Benin is captivating, as is contemporary London and 1950s Lagos through Peter Lowon’s diary; particularly in the sections on the Benin kingdom, Okojie has created a stunning world with great empathy for the characters that populate it. From Adesua – who is ‘not fit for marriage and will embarrass the palace’, but who Oba Odion (the current king) is hell-bent on taking as wife number 8; Oba Anuje – Odion’s father and previous king; Odion’s many different wives – including his third and favourite, Omotola; Sully – the stranger who waltzes into the kingdom, and whose presence leads to a dangerous liaison with Adesua. Then there is Ere, the craftsman, who is forced to carve a brass head in the likeness of the Oba’s rival – Ogiso. A brass head that is so close to Ogiso’s image that for the Oba it seems to wield an ‘unsettling power’. So he gives it to Adesua – lying that it was in honour of their marriage; the head continues its role as a gift down the generations, till it reaches Joy, as a troubling inheritance, a legacy of a troubled family which we discover through the journal entries of her grandfather, Peter Lowon. The journal entries are beautifully rendered. Deep secrets that haunt this family – Queenie had hers, which Joy only learns after her mother’s death. Peter Lowon had his, which are revealed through his diary. Ultimately, this is not a happy story – there is death, sadness and a lot of haunting history cast over each character. It is also a beautifully written and captivating novel, that weaves in the mythic and the surreal. Okojie is a beautiful writer and storyteller, her writing gives us a sense of verisimilitude about the times in which the book is set, – 19th century Benin, 1950s Lagos and 1980s London. Perhaps most satisfying is that her female characters in particular are imbued vividly with beauty, flaws and humanity; it is an astonishingly breathtaking debut.