Hadlow Down Book Club Review – November 2023

Black Butterflies Priscilla Morris 2023

‘Have you ever heard of such a thing? A human chain to rescue books, a moment of coming together, of resistance.’

Our book this month has particular poignancy in view of what is happening in the world right now. Priscilla Morris’s novel, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize tells the story of the siege of Sarajevo, based on real-life incidents and experiences from her own family.
Zora Kokovic is an artist and Professor of Art at the University of Sarajevo where she lives with her husband Franjo and cares for her 83-year-old mother. As unrest grows, Franjo and her mother leave to stay with her daughter who lives in England, but Zora decides to stay in her beloved city to finish her painting and join them later. She believes that things will soon settle down and that the tanks gathering in the mountains are for their protection.
Despite difficulties, Zora begins to enjoy her solitude and focus on her recent painting.  But soon things worsen, as conflict turns into full scale war. Buildings are shelled, people lie dead in the streets; food, water and electricity become scarce and then vanish. Zora is reduced to catching pigeons on her windowsill and cooking them.

She becomes thin and emaciated, her teeth blacken and her hair thins, but for her the biggest blow comes when the beautiful glass-domed library where she has her studio burns down, destroying not only her work but the rare and valuable books stored there. Their ashes fall from the sky lfor days like black butterflies.

The book is lightened by the moments of warmth and kindness as neighbours help each other whatever their religion or ethnicity. Zora teaches her neighbour’s little girl Una to paint and when paper runs out they paint on the walls; Zora and her bookseller neighbour Mifsud also find comfort and warmth together.

We see everything through Zora’s eyes which enables us to experience with her not only the hurt, the cold and hunger but also the moments of snatched comfort and happiness. The acutely observed minute sensory details, especially taste and smell give the novel its sense of realism and Zora’s memories of her beautiful city as it was give it a lyrical quality.

There were possible weaknesses, some people felt there was perhaps too much repetition, but we all agreed that it was a beautiful and absorbing book, one that people couldn’t stop reading. We recommend it.

Our next book : The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Heather Mines