Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Set in Sarajevo during the start of the war, this is another book on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist 2023. What starts off as sofas and cars used to barricade roads at night leads to a full scale war that surprises the people of Sarajevo who are a mixed community of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. Zora and her husband Franjo enjoy their life and the place where they live until the war starts when they decide that Franjo must take his mother to the UK to stay with their daughter, leaving Zora in Sarajevo.

What then follows is the slow descent into the madness that is war, the lack of food, fuel, water, snipers on the tops of buildings, children hit with shrapnel and people dying a slow death trying to survive and left on the roads and pavements where they died. One of the key events for Zora who was an artist is when the building that housed her studio went up in flames after being hit by a rocket. All her work was destroyed as were the books and documents that were housed on the first floor with the burnt pieces of paper blown all over the city – the black butterflies.

The people that Zora knows in the block of flats where she lives stay together as a community, helping each other out, coming together to celebrate and to suffer. This all stops when a young girl who used to come to Zora to paint was killed crossing from one block of flats to her home by a piece of shrapnel. After she had died, her parents no longer came round to Zora’s flat and things deteriorated. They didn’t eat for days, stayed in bed, the toilets didn’t work, there was no water or fuel and life was as bleak as it could get and then Zora’s son-in-law contacted her to say that he was coming to get her out.

Her leaving then caused others to feel differently about her and she packs and leaves in a scramble, folded in a cardboard box until out of the city. She is so hungry she trembles and nearly faints several times until at last she is safe in a hotel with hot water and clean sheets.

The book focuses on the time building up to Zora leaving and then quickly rushes through her settling in England with little mention of the guilt that she must feel at leaving behind friends, never to hear from them again. I was as interested in the story to follow – did they go back – as I was in the one told.

It is a searing description of what war feels like as a civilian, trapped and presumably is being played out again in Ukraine at present. There are several themes running through the story such as bridges. Zora is a painter of bridges in Sarajevo and well-known for it and Mirsad, her neighbour, tells a story in the evenings about a bridge built in the city and the sacrifices made to ensure that it could be built. At the end, it is mentioned that Mostar Bridge is torn down but I can’t help but feel that the symbolism of bridges is not fully utilised or is hidden amongst other things and doesn’t reveal itself as clearly as throughout the book.

The writing is good – it flows and never gets in the way of the story-telling, like the rivers under the bridges. Descriptions are clear and emotive and show the love for the place. Towards the end of the book the description of England on the journey to her daughter and Son-in Law’s house combines the English countryside with vocabulary used to describe war showing that she is neither one or the other but in limbo.

All is dripping. The wet furrows of earth seem to push up against the bluing curve of the sky and then relax. Rising and falling, as if breathing. Little pools of rainwater glisten like scattered fragments of glass and the smell of damp earth comes to her. Exhaustion rears up in her like a great wave, yet she feels so alive.

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The book is good but I don’t think it is the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. In my opinion, I think Demon Copperhead is stronger, lasts longer after reading and speaks of an on-going crisis from which few escape. But, I was wrong about the shortlist so what do I know!

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