Butterfly Yellow

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Thanhha Lai, Butterfly Yellow, University of Queensland Press, March 2020, 304 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780702262890 

It is not common to find a novel set in the past that seems so right for our time. Sharing the story of Hang, and her journey to reunite with her little brother, who was lost to her in the last days of the Vietnam War, Butterfly Yellow captures the grief and loss of the refugee experience and imbues it with grace and beauty.  

From the horrors of the war, to the lurching misery of the boat, through terrifying encounters with pirates and the trauma of watching her family being wrenched away one by one, Hang tenaciously clings to the hope that her brother, Linh, has found safety in America. Six years after the war has ended, Hang finds herself on a bus, headed to 405 Mesquite Street, Amarillo Texas – her life’s singular purpose to be reunited with her brother.  

When the bus leaves without her, and Hang finds herself stranded, it is her Grandma’s words that guide her, When in danger, look for those who can’t help but be kind, kindness from the stomach out. Thus, Hang meets LeeRoy – a wanna be cowboy, on his way to adventure.  

Butterfly Yellow is beautifully written, and offers readers the opportunity to understand the experiences of refugees who are building connections between their previous life and the strange new world that they find themselves in. Lyrical passages bring beauty to an often gritty story:  

Dusk has always been her favourite hour, when the sun has grown bored of its harshness and is melting into a soft rose to give this side of the globe a break. 

Some may find Hang’s heavily accented speech difficult to decode as Lai writes Hang’s words as she says them – for example, when LeeRoy asks Hang to share her only piece of food – a juicy orange – she replies Not pho du. Pho boro-do – “Not for you. For brother.” This blend of Vietnamese and English gives the story an authentic flavour, however weaker readers may prefer to listen to the audio book for a potentially clearer experience.  

Confident readers from fourteen years may enjoy the story, although it is complex and multi-layered. This is not an easy read, and potentially more will be drawn from it if presented within a teaching context. The characters in the story stay with readers long after the reading is done, and Butterfly Yellow is likely to be a text that readers return to several times, as the detail of the story may not reveal itself on the first reading. However, this text gifts us with a luminous portrayal of hope, humanity and family – and those who persist with the complexity will be rewarded.  

Reviewed by Kay Oddone 

Read Gabrielle Meares’ review of Butterfly Yellow here

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