"Monarchs with business suits instead of crowns spent four thousand American dollars per day on accommodation at the APEC Summit in Busan, South Korea, in December 2005. The luxury banquet for summit participants cost 1.5 million dollars. It surely must have been Rollsroycefood, swan toilet paper, musical champagne.
The Butterfly Prison is an absorbing, rewarding and challenging reading experience. Pearson's language, a rhythm of description and reflection, is punch-the-air, breathtakingly good when it soars, drawing you seductively in to the perspective of her two protagonists, and carrying the fury, the despair, the strength and finally the hope of the world's poor with it.
Poverty Pearson sees as the theft of not just resources, but of joy, of creativity, of a life with possibility and variety from most of the world. The novel is a long scream of protest at this theft, and unlike many overtly political books, never simplified, never superficial.
Pearson, who grew up in Sydney's west and then spent most of her adult life in Latin America, draws seamless lines between the experiences of the world's poor, whether in Mexico City or Redfern, Venezuela's Merida or Macquarie Fields. The portrait of the latter - "Every day in Macquarie Fields, police cars parked in groups of three outside the supermarket, the station and the park. Officers patrolled the quiet public housing streets, and their shadows stuck to the public housing walls, haunting people even when they weren't around" - is searing, indictatory, confronting an instantly recognisable. It would have been easy to set this tale of poverty and resistance in a country renowned for both, but by setting the tale in Australia, Pearson confronts the reader to understand the universality of poverty, of theft and of the war being hope and hopelessness. She refuses to allow a middle-class Australian to look away, to pretend the problem is elsewhere.
The main technique employed here - the use of interspersed paragraphs of world history, works particularly well, and serves to break up the lengthy and occasionally repetitive, narrative (and in a surprising connection, reminded me somewhat of comic writer Warren Ellis' integration of headlines and story, albeit with a more driven tone).
Which is not to say the novel is grim. Far from it. Pearson has such love for humanity - her protagonists' creativity shines, and their love for housemates and collaborators gives the novel bounce and energy. A key theme of the novel is the families we construct for ourselves, the importance of loving and being loved, of being part of we and not just I.
The book is uneven - not unusual for a first novel - with clunky constructions popping up and pacing issues, particularly in the first half which drags too much. The author has time and space to grow, to make the soaring heights of the book closer to the normal terrain. I was a little worried that I wouldn't love this book, but while the flaws are real, there's no question that this is one of those which creeps inside you and changes something.
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