The Butterfly Heart takes place in Zambia, the beautiful ‘butterfly heart’ of Africa. The story is told through two voices: Bul-Boo, a young girl who lives with her family and twin sister Madillo, and Ifwafwa, the Snake Man. He is old and wise and has the unique ability to communicate with snakes. The twins’ lovely and gentle friend Winifred is in trouble. Her father has died, and his brother has arranged for her to marry his friend, a man old enough to be Winifred’s grandfather. Winifred seems resigned to her fate, but Bul-Boo is determined to do something, and in desperation, the twins turn to Ifwafwa.
Leyden has drawn attention to the issue and tragedy of child marriage in Africa, while simultaneously blending the refreshing directness of a child’s worldview. The language, story structure and characterisation are simple and very clear. Leyden uses the twins Bul-Boo and Madillo to demonstrate how human nature can divide in a crisis. Bul-Boo is practical and pragmatic, while her twin Madillo is more superstitious and mysterious. Together, the two girls’ dialogue ebbs and flows to create a duet that will make you laugh and cry.
Reviewed by Mary Esther Judy
While the story deals with difficult, even impossible circumstances, it is not at all didactic or heavy-going. The drawing of the storyline is seamless. Leyden paints a picture of the textural beauty of Africa, and the richness of the people who inhabit it. With genuine humour and warmth throughout, The Butterfly Heart compels the reader gently forward to a very satisfying ending.