My thanks to Duckworth Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Black Butterflies is a beautiful, powerful, heart-wrenching, and haunting story of a city torn by war, and of its people, coping not only with the adversities of daily living, but also the helplessness and heartbreak of seeing the city they love destroyed before their own eyes. Based on real-life incidents and experiences from her own family and relatives, author Pricilla Morris paints a picture from a few decades ago, that has resonance and relevance in the present context.

Zora Kočović is a professor of art at the Academy of Fine Arts at the University in Sarajevo, where she lives with her husband Franjo, a former journalist and eighty-three-year-old mother, who spends winters at their flat. Sarajevo is a city Zora knows and loves deeply, so much so, that she can’t envision living anywhere else:

She loves Sarajevo. She knows all its alleys and courtyards, all its scents and sounds—the way the light falls at the end of their street in wintertime, the rattle of the tram, the blowsy roses that bloom each June in the mosque gardens, the plums and fogs in the autumn, the ponderous old men playing chess in the cafés, the mahalas—the old neighbourhoods—that radiate from the centre like the spiral of a snail’s shell.

Sarajevo has always been multicultural—its people living and mixing harmoniously, most families mixed—most celebrating the festivals of all cultures. But now there is unrest. Conflict is brewing—people starting to leave, and refugees allowed to occupy any flat that’s empty. Zora decides that while she will stay back a while for her painting and her job, Franjo and her mother are to travel to England for their annual visit to their daughter Dubravka, married to an Englishman, Stephen and their little daughter Ruby. Zora will join them later.

While things are difficult and there are small obstacles she must face, Zora begins to enjoy the solitude and the chance it gives her to engage in her painting. But before long, things take a turn for the worse, and the conflict turns into a full-blown war. The city is being destroyed all around her, going to university or her studio is no longer an option, and her own apartment building is damaged in the shelling. Things start to get scarce—food, water, electricity—and then completely vanish. The little contact she had with her family on the telephone too comes to an end, when lines are cut off. All the residents of Zora’s apartment building come together, helping each other cope with a situation most of them find hard to understand. We follow Zora as she tries to come to terms with all that’s going on.

This was a wonderful though heart-breaking book which kept me reading all through, and one which I highly recommend.

The Bosnian war of 1992–1995 was something I knew little about, and this book helped me get some context. While the book doesn’t go into the motivations and differences that led to the conflict (indeed, the characters themselves are at a loss to point a finger at why), it goes give one an insight into the kind of multicultural space Sarajevo was. I had no idea that it was part of the Ottoman empire once, and enjoyed getting glimpses of its culture like how festivals were celebrated and some folklore as well as some of its bridges and landmarks. Sarajevo’s people continue to fight against the seeds of division that the conflict tries to sow (there are some of course, who hold radical views, too). A particularly beautiful, yet highly distressing moment is where people get together to save what they can from the library which is on fire:

Have you ever heard of such a thing? A human chain to rescue books. A moment of coming together, of resistance. But what good did it do? They say almost two million documents burnt in there. First editions, rare manuscripts, land records, newspaper archives. Our heritage destroyed in a night.

The focus of our story is Zora’s experiences. With her we too watch as a rich, bustling, lovely city is plunged into war—as a relatively normal life (there is unrest already when the story opens) deteriorates into a struggle for day-to-day survival—a battle not only against the war and its weapons, but also against its impacts, whether lack of basic necessities or the elements or the constant insecurity and uncertainty. Before long it seems—there are no beginnings and endings. Just war.

Zora must cope with much—the struggle for survival, the pain of watching the city she loves being torn to pieces around her, her art that she lives for and through which she expresses herself destroyed, separation from her family (whom she needs more than ever at these times), grappling with the question of leaving versus staying, and really also wondering about the war itself which makes no sense. Morris gets us to experience every little emotion with Zora—the shock, the hurt, the cold, the hunger, also the few moments of comfort or happiness snatched amidst it all. And she treats it with subtlety and sensitivity—we feel pain, loss, helplessness, hopelessness—and without bringing in the slightest hint of drama.

Art is also an important thread of the book. This is what Zora does and also really the way she expresses her love for the city and also her emotions towards it. Initially we see her painting its bridges and landscapes—and later the destruction and fires that take over the city. Art also ends up offering her solace, when she feels lost, for her neighbours sending their little daughter Una for lessons gives her (in fact them both) something to look forward to.

While we see and experience everything though Zora’s perspective, we also get a sense of the community—her neighbours particularly who turn into a source of much needed comfort and support for each other during the ordeal—while each also deals with their own problems.

A beautiful and poignant read. 5 stars!  

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

    1. Thanks 🙂 Hope you enjoy it too. Some reviews I just noticed after writing my own felt it was more ‘commercial’ than ‘literary’ historical fiction, but this wasn’t something that bothered me. I think she captured the emotions well

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    1. Thank you 🙂 It’s more the experience of someone living in the midst of the war, so there aren’t many details of the actual conflict but I liked that she explored so many dimensions of the impact that it can have on individuals

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was well done, and I liked that even at the most dramatic and most intense moments in the story, reactions are subtle and quiet leaving one to feel it with the characters. This was the first time I’ve come across the Bosnian war in fiction too, though here the story is of the experience of an ordinary person living amidst it, so could well describe the experience of any similar situation.

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  1. I just can’t imagine living in a city torn up by war. I remember The Bosnian war very well as I was serving in the military at the time, and I knew people who went over there for aid, etc.

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    1. It’s a terrifying thought, and the book really takes one along with the main character Zora, as every day brings a new challenge and life sort of deteriorates from something quite normal to a struggle. My knowledge of the war is rather vague. I would have been around 9 when it started, and I don’t think I’d have taken it in at that point so what little I know was from subsequent reading or mentions.

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    1. One really can’t stop wondering why humans don’t seem to learn from the past at all. For all the claims of civilisation and having come so far ahead from where we were, we actually don’t seem to moved on some aspects, just changed form

      Liked by 1 person

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