#BookReview Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Black ButterfliesAbout the Book

Sarajevo, Spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – whether Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.

When violence finally spills over, Zora, an artist and teacher, sends her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe that hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind while the city falls under siege.

As the assault deepens and everything they love is laid to waste, black ashes floating over the rooftops, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over. Theirs is a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope.

Format: Hardback (288 pages)   Publisher: Duckworth
Publication date: 5th May 2022 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

In its story of a diverse, peaceful community transformed by nationalism into a place of fear, death and destruction, it’s impossible to read Black Butterflies without thinking of the current war in Ukraine and, in particular, the siege of Mariupol. Through the experiences of Zora and others like her who remain in the city – increasingly not by inclination but due to the impossibility of doing anything else – the reader witnesses what it was like to live (although ‘exist’ might be a better world) through what became known as the siege of Sarajevo. Cut off from the outside world and at the mercy of snipers and enemy shelling, food shortages, lack of power and fresh water turn a once civilised thriving city into a virtual wasteland. And when winter comes, bringing with it sub-zero tempratures, every day becomes a battle of survival.

For Zora, being deprived of her ability to make art is almost as bad; being an artist is part of her very identity. It’s why the obliteration of cultural sites within the city and along with it the destruction of books, works of art and Zora’s studio has such a devastating effect on her. Gradually, however, the making of art becomes something akin to an act of resistance, of cultural defiance and an example of a determination to ‘carry on’. For Zora, it also provides a distraction from day-to-day concerns and the increasing privations. Indeed, her experiences bring about a change in her art, transforming her style into something more experimental than the landscapes she produced before. Out of necessity she incorporates the detritus of war into her art, producing bold collages.

Amongst the horror and deprivation, there are snatched moments of happiness: a shared meal assembled from scraps of food, the telling of stories around a makeshift fire, a ‘bring your own art’ exhibition, the warmth of another body next to yours.  The possibility of making a perilous escape from the city brings Zora hope that she might be reunited with her family but also a feeling of guilt for others left behind.

Based on the experiences of those who lived through the Bosnian war, including the author’s own family, Black Butterflies demonstrates the strength of the human spirit, the power of art but also, as the people of Ukraine have discovered, that the peace and security we enjoy can vanish in a moment.  To quote from John Buchan’s The Power-House, ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.’ Black Butterflies is an impressive debut novel.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of Duckworth via NetGalley.

In three words: Powerful, moving, thought-provoking

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Priscilla MorrisAbout the Author

Priscilla Morris was born in Cambridge to a Yugoslav mother and a Cornish father. She grew up mostly in London and read Spanish, Italian and Social Anthropology at Cambridge University. After working briefly as a journalist and teaching English in Spain and Brazil during her twenties and early thirties, she received an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia. She now lives between Ireland and Spain and lectures in Creative Writing at University College Dublin. (Photo: Amazon author page)

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