Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie

12th Jun 2015

Butterfly fish
Butterfly Fish is Irenosen Okojie’s evocative debut novel. It weaves life in modern day London with regal nineteenth-century Nigeria and visits both countries in the 1960s and 1970s. It also weaves realism with a kind of magical realism to create a wonderfully readable story.

The novel starts and ends in the present with Joy. Joy has just lost her mother, Queenie, and Okojie’s rendering of her grief is almost too painful to read. Joy doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing – she cares too deeply about saving a fish’s life when it is found in a swimming pool and the reader knows it is because she doesn’t want to experience any more death.

Joy’s depression is skilfully and sensitively presented. The human condition in all its forms is seen in Butterfly Fish – from the deeply upsetting grief to the beauty in the everyday. Joy is depressed and people flit in and out of her life. She briefly has a friend, an interesting old lady called Mrs Harris, who is then replaced by a lover who doesn’t really seem to care about her.

Joy is a photographer and seems adept at looking at people’s worlds but not her own. Her family friend, a lawyer, is in charge of Queenie’s will and he is seen later in the story. It is interesting to see how differently characters act after many years and the secrets they have been hiding for so long.

Queenie’s life is skilfully intertwined in the story; in many ways, the novel is entirely about her death. Queenie’s narrative as she moves to London in the 1960s is pivotal to the story: the life she left in Nigeria and the sort of world she found in London is a masterful telling of the immigrant’s life.

Life in nineteenth century Nigeria is skilfully wrought. This narrative strain focuses on Adeusa, forced into becoming a wife of the king. After meeting a handsome stranger, she is in very dangerous territory. Pre-colonial Nigeria is brought to life in a way that isn’t seen in many English novels. Okojie brings the past back to haunt the present, finally giving silenced characters a voice.

Back in modern-day London, Joy is haunted by a woman, who at first appears in the street or in photographs. Joy is haunted by many things, and it is not until these ghosts can be exorcised that she can be free.

Butterfly Fish is a huge story and the writing has a real storytelling quality to it; it often feels as if you are listening to Okojie telling you the tale. Each strand, each world, is vivid and well imagined. Often, with novels with more than one narrative strand, some storylines are more interesting than others. This isn’t the case with this novel – each part is equally well done.

Okojie seems interested in freak accidents, in lives changing forever. The unpredictability of life is a key theme here. Queenie’s death is a shock to Joy, but it reveals other, often harrowing, secrets.

The one downside in Butterfly Fish is that Joy has too many awful events happen to her, especially towards the end. A couple of plot points seem to come from nowhere and, in turn, small parts of the novel veer towards melodrama.

But ultimately it’s a very impressive and beautifully written novel. It’s especially impressive considering that this is the author’s first. Irenosen Okojie is certainly a writer to watch.