Review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

33368868Verdict: At least it was short.

My rating: 1,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Published by Jacaranda Books 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

Abeo Kata lives a comfortable, happy life in West Africa as the privileged nine-year-old daughter of a government employee and stay-at-home mother. But when the Katas’ idyllic lifestyle takes a turn for the worse, Abeo’s father, following his mother’s advice, places the girl in a religious shrine, hoping that the sacrifice of his daughter will serve as atonement for the crimes of his ancestors. Unspeakable acts befall Abeo for the 15 years she is held in the shrine. When she is finally rescued, broken and battered, she must struggle to overcome her past, endure the revelation of family secrets, and learn to trust and love again.

In the tradition of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, this novel is a contemporary story that offers an eye-opening account of the practice of ritual servitude in West Africa. Spanning decades and two continents, Praise Song for the Butterflies will break your heart and then heal it.

Of all the books on the Women’s Prize longlist, this one I feared reading the most. And it pains me to say that I was absolutely correct in not looking forward to reading this. I struggled with this book and not in a “it was at least intellectually stimulating”-way. I found it clumsy and painful and the characters unbearable.

The book starts promising, with a fairly intriguing look into Abeo’s life in New York, and a superficial but assured introduction into the family and their dynamics. But as soon as Abeo’s grandmother moved in with them, the book lost me and I never recovered. I found her character irritating in her complete lack of redeeming qualities (she might as well have been an evil queen in a Grimm’s fairy tale for all the nuance) and the way she was allowed to be awful just drove me up the walls. I think part of my problem was the fast-moving narration that never really took the time to just stay with any given moment long enough for the characters to come to life for me. Simultaneously, McFadden gets hung up on weird little details that for me added nothing to the story and felt like padding. For example, she describes characters smoking in a way that made it seem like it was supposed to be meaningful but did nothing for me.

The language is without any frills, nothing offensive but also not interesting enough to save the book from its godawful characters and plot for me. I hated pretty much every single character and found them one-dimensional in their exagerated awfulness. Their behaviour did not strike me as true (or at least I optimistically hope people this awful are an exception rather than the norm) and I did never really understand anybody’s motivations enough for them to become compelling.

Now, I know that this is super outside my wheelhouse and a lot of my dislike might be simple genre preference but I really hated vast stretches of it. It is not quite abysmal enough to warrant a one star rating (a rating I really hardly ever give) but only by a hair’s breadth. I am very glad to have gotten this out of the way early in my longlist reading because honestly? It can only get better from here.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

27 thoughts on “Review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

  1. One of my biggest pet peeves in literary fiction is when authors pause over insignificant moments (e.g., smoking) to suggest that the reader should imbue them with meaning. Ugh, it is so self-indulgent and ironically vapid. Anyway, I am so happy you made it through this book! I am at a point where I do not have the slightest clue what I’m going to make of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was really weird as well because so many things get glossed over (we jump a pretty significant amount of time in the middle) or are left to the reader’s imagination but every now and then she focusses on some inconsequential thing (like what song somebody in the apartment below was listening to) and I just did not get this book and the narrative choices.
      To be perfectly honest, I don’t see you loving it. You will probably get on with it better than me because of the whole historical fiction angle, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I normally don’t feel comfortable telling people to stay away from books – but this one is pretty much exactly the way the blurb makes it sound and if that didn’t appeal to you, you’d surely have a similar reaction to mine.


  2. I’ve never heard of this book before, and the premise sounds interesting (I didn’t know ritual servitude was a thing) but your review makes me think twice before picking it up. 😛 I don’t mind books that primarily have unlikable characters but only if they’re unlikable in a realistic way. Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, the premise alone did not entice me at all. It just really is not my type of book.
      I don’t mind unlikable as long as they are compelling and these I just found boring and grating.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lol’d at your placement of Praise Song all the way down the ranks past the blank slots! I’ve been trying not to let myself make assumptions before starting any of the longlist titles I have left, but I have been wary of this one. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt very petty to put the book at the very end. (and funny) But it made me so angry! I also really doubt I will dislike any of the other books as much as I disliked this.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review! The premise of this had interested me a bit, but the characterization sounds cartoony and the prose mediocre. Novelists who are bad at selecting relevant details also are a pet peeve, so I’ll definitely skip this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my gosh, I’m a bit terrified of reading this now. As you said: at least it’s short. So maybe I’ll give it a try. Better luck with the next ones, Hannah 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, I very much agree with you on the lack of nuance within the characters, particularly the grandmother. This really was lacking in a way I wish it hadn’t, as I felt it conveyed an important story otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

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