Today, thanks to Headline, I have the pleasure of giving you a peek at the opening of Harriet Evans’ new novel, The Butterfly Summer, which is out today. First though, here’s what I thought of it…
Twenty five-year-old, Nina Parr is about to discover that her family have been keeping secrets from her. Some very big secrets indeed.
The novel begins two years to the day since Nina’s divorce was finalised from Sebastian, with whom she’s now good friends. She’s spending her lunchtime, as she does every lunchtime, in the London Library. Her father, dead when Nina was six months old on an expedition to the Venezuelan rainforest searching for the Glasswinged Butterfly, bought her membership to the library and she makes the most of it. This particular day, she bumps into Sebastian at the library and their jokey conversation incurs the ire of an elderly woman at the next table. After Sebastian leaves, the woman approaches Nina.
‘You really are just like your father, you know, Nina.’
I felt my scalp tighten, my skin prickle again: half anger, half fear. I didn’t know how to respond.
‘Did you hear me? You are very like him.’
As a stray beam of sunshine caught her I looked down at her glinting brooch and saw it was in the shape of a butterfly. And I was scared then. Because butterflies are what killed him, and I sort of hate them.
‘Look, Miss – I don’t know your name. I’m sorry, but my father’s dead.’ Then, because she wasn’t saying anything, I added, ‘I don’t remember anything about him. He died when I was six months old. All right?’
She barely spoke above a whisper:
‘So that’s what they told you, is it? Of course they did.’
The woman, who calls herself ‘Travers’, asks about Keepsake and whether someone’s still there. When Nina gets home, she discovers that the woman’s slipped an envelope into her bag. There’s a photograph inside of a girl. Written on the back is ‘Teddy at Keepsake, 1936. You look just like her, You should know about KEEPSAKE by now.’ Nina’s mum and her partner, Malc, dismiss Miss Travers as a crazy old lady but it’s not long before Nina receives another photograph with a message on the back and she begins to piece some memories together.
The Butterfly Summer takes its name from the other story within the novel. An autobiographical piece written by Nina’s paternal grandmother, Theodora Parr. It begins with the tale of the Parr family, their link to Charles II and their unique matriarchal lineage. It goes on to detail Thea’s coming-of-age, moving in to the time when her son, George, was young. It’s an explanation to him and a significant other as to her behaviour.
What’s really special about The Butterfly Summer is that Evans pulls off a sleight of hand. It’s so well done and so very clever; its reveal spins the story’s perspective, leaving the reader questioning and giving the book an additional depth. It’s an impressive trick and I really loved the change it wrought.
However, there’s a twist towards the end of the book where I felt the writer’s hand was exposed. Some readers will love it, but it felt too much to me (Evans isn’t the first writer to use this twist; I’ve never been a fan it). I suspect that whether or not you enjoy the ending will be a matter of personal taste too: it all felt a little too wrapped up for me.
Having said that, I did really enjoy the majority of the book. It’s an exploration of families, particularly mother/daughter relationships, and there’s a beautiful love story at the centre of it which is wonderful and heart-breaking. If you enjoy a well-written, romantic novel, this is well worth your time.
The kind of books I like usually begin by telling you about the family you’re going to meet. ‘The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road.’ ‘They were not railway children to begin with.’ They have each other, that’s what the author wants you to know.
I like stories about families. They’re like fairy tales to me: I never knew my father and Mum is . . . not really like mothers in books. The people who really looked after me, who did the boring things necessary to sustain a child (teeth, zebra crossings, shoes that fit), are Malc, my stepfather, and Mrs Poll, the old lady upstairs – and I was wrong about them. Oh, I was wrong about all of it! And it’s still such a muddle, the story of what happened, that summer everything changed. It jumps in and out of years and months like Max in Where the Wild Things Are: we never really escape our childhoods, do we?
But if you want a beginning, I suppose that day in April is where it began to unravel, and it was a tiny thing which started it all off: the zip on a new pair of boots.
Malc, my stepfather, says there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason. I would always have met her, he says; I went to the library most lunchtimes. But I still believe something else was at work that day. Some kind of old magic, the sort that’s still at work when you need it, lurking just out of sight, hidden along dark corridors, up tall towers, and in long-forgotten corners of dusty old houses.
Thanks to Headline for the extract and the review copy. You can discover more about The Butterfly Summer on the blogs listed below: