“Some people die as babies, other live to a hundred. It wouldn’t be fair if that was it. You’ve got to have somewhere to go on to.”
“Drink it.” She’s holding the glass out to me. It’s so full that if she tipped her hand just a bit the water would trickle down the side. “Now.”
“But I’m not thirsty.”
Because the first chapter is set when June is only 10 years old, this image breaks my heart. Her being forced to drink the water despite the fact that she’s not thirsty – and then forced to drink another glass, and another, and not be permitted to use the bathroom – made me want to cry, and I was only a couple of pages in.
June’s mother drowned when she was 7 years old. Her father remarried, and in moved her stepmother Kathleen and her daughter Megan, who’s a year younger than June.
Kathleen is abusive: she constantly calls June ugly, mocks her for her black skin and frizzy hair, and forces her to eat and drink to the point of vomiting on a daily basis. Megan often joins in, too scared of her mother to say no, and June feels completely alone with no one to turn to.
June is too frightened to tell anyone, especially her father: he was broken when her mother died, and she doesn’t want to ruin his happiness. She stays silent, but mentally wills the people around her to see the situation that she’s trapped in – internally pleading with her teachers to just ask if she’s okay, because if anyone asked she would tell them. She’s certain no one will believe her if she just blurts it out, but if they ask then it proves they can see something is wrong.
June’s only freedom comes from her bicycle. Every time she pedals she fantasizes about leaving home and never returning, fending for herself in the big wide world. It’s on one of these adventures that she explores the old, abandoned caravan park, and stumbles upon Blister, the boy who will become her best friend.
Told over a series of years – following June from 10 years old all the way through to 25 – it’s a harrowing look at the way childhood abuse impacts your entire life, and the way victims are often blamed for defending themselves.
I was distraught by this book. I should have known I would be after I read a review by Rachel (leader of #SundayYA chat) and she said she’d cried for the last 50 pages, but – stupidly – I thought I would be impervious to the emotions that Lisa’s writing evoked. I was wrong about that.
Reading the first page made me feel sick. It’s just so damned realistic that I could picture poor little June stuck in that situation and I was yearning to help her. It’s how I imagine the true life childhood abuse books would make me feel, and is one of the reasons I’ve never even attempted the genre. I like to pretend I’m cold-hearted and uncaring, but this made me feel so much.
I was hoping that someone would recognise June’s suffering, I was rooting for the relationship between her and Blister that slowly turned into more than friends, I was flying through the book.
I decided to start ‘Paper Butterflies’ just before midnight which was a stupid idea – I ended up staying awake until 1:30, then had to finish it the next day after work. The story takes over your mind, and you won’t relax until you know how it finishes. I definitely suggest starting this one when you have a good chunk of time on your hands.
But despite the soul-destroying nature of the plot, I couldn’t help but appreciate that Lisa Heathfield’s writing is gorgeous. She certainly knows how to tell a story, and with intermittent chapters flashing forward to a time ‘After’ the question of what exactly those chapters are following is always in the back of your mind. I had an idea of where the story was heading, but my prediction was completely wrong. If you can predict what happens next, I’ll be very surprised: I haven’t felt this shocked to my core in a very long time.
There are two events towards the end of the book that I wasn’t expecting, but because they were so startling I’m not going to discuss them here. It’s not often that I do a spoiler free review – I like giving away the endings and fully dissecting them! – but I know that would be hugely detrimental to the effect of the plot. This is one you need to discover for yourselves.
I do have one piece of advice for you: keep tissues close by.
Lisa Heathfield is a genius. A sadistic genius, but a genius nevertheless. I’d read an excerpt of her debut novel, ‘Seed’, but didn’t get around to finishing it off – after reading this one that’s definitely a priority.
It’s a strange coincidence that I decided to read ‘Paper Butterflies’ just after ‘The Problem With Forever’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout, because they have a lot of parallels – child abuse, the protagonist wanting to be a social worker to help out other people in her situation. However, the flashbacks in the other novel are vague, and the abuse in this one is in your face, hard-hitting and very intense. If you don’t like reading distressing scenes, I’d suggest reading Jennifer’s novel instead. This could be triggering, especially as the abuse transitions from psychological to physical over the course of June’s life.
If you love reading true-life stories, this is one for you. The characters and the plot are so well-written and believable that it genuinely could be a real person’s story.