The tagline for Sonya Harnett’s Butterfly is ‘Who ever forgets what happens when you’re fourteen?’ This little teaser succinctly bundles up the essence of the book, as well as the catastrophe of the central protagonist Plum Coyle. Plum is the fourteen-year-old girl you are going to want to wrap your arms around and protect while you read. Like the tagline says, you never forget what happens when you’re fourteen, and you won’t ever forget poor Plum either.
The story transpires circa 1980 in leafy, non-threatening suburbia. Plum is about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday, if she can survive the constant damage that’s done to her by her nasty group of friends. She has two older brothers to look up to for strength, Justin and Cydar, but they are preoccupied with their own secret lives, which collide with Plum’s own in ways that only you as a reader are allowed to know. And then there’s Maureen, the Coyle’s next-door neighbour, whom Plum is fascinated by and whom takes a return interest in Plum. These are the only ingredients that Hartnett plays with in the book, but somehow what ensues is a layered and textured story that breaks your heart on every page.
Hartnett soars in young adult literature, and Butterfly is no different. Her descriptions of adolescent emotions are unflinchingly exact, and slowly you realise that her domestic and suburban insights are really much deeper human ones. Her prose doesn’t falter, either. Some of the techniques she uses in her writing, of pulling away from a critical moment and observing it from a distance and then racing back in, are so deftly executed that if you’re a writer yourself, you’ll itch to try it out in your own work.
Butterfly is not Hartnett’s latest work, having been succeeded by The Midnight Zoo in 2010 and Children of the King in 2012, but I maintain that it is her best. The story is so very simple and utterly relatable, carried by breathtakingly good prose and characters even more compelling and original than the ones Hartnett conjured in Sleeping Dogs. I don’t know how a fourteen-year-old would feel about the text, whether it would be comforting or confronting for them. For an adult though, as well as making you reminisce about your own fight through adolescence, it’s just a fucking good read.