I have to say that I loved this book. I cannot say that it is a heart warming journey, every page filled with life affirming goodness that everyone should read, but I can say that I was truly touched by the words on the pages. Every time I turned the page I found something so inextricably true that I am, on this rare occasion, moved by the openness and honesty of a very brave author. It seems to me that Marika Cobbold has laid down some of her innermost thoughts and feelings that most of us would not be inclined to admit to even our closest friends, let alone put them in print for the world to read (it is hard enough admitting them to ourselves!). It is the unflinching reality of her words that make this book such an absorbing and refreshing read.
This contemporary novel tells the story of Grace Shield, a successful photographer who has given up on her career and now leads a quiet and uneventful life. That is until an unexpected package and a newspaper article written about her life, lead Grace down a pathway of remembrance of her own past, and the discovery of hidden histories.
The book is set during the here and now of Grace seeking answers about her untimely gift. Cobbold uses the journalist’s article as an original way of allowing flashbacks into Grace’s past, letting the reader ‘remember’ the events as Grace’s memories are triggered by the journalist’s words. This mechanism gives the book a very natural flow and creates a closeness with Grace and an insight into her internal responses to situations which may not have otherwise been achieved. We follow her through her difficult childhood, her first love affair, a marriage and plenty of heartache along the way (and there is a lot of heartache).
In order to find out more about her package, Grace seeks out an old acquaintance, Louisa Blackstaff, who reveals her own history to Grace. These discussions are written in Louisa’s own words as she tells her story to Grace. Again, this feels like incredibly natural way for the story to unfold and allows the reader a connection with Louisa and a much greater understanding of her character. She talks us through her unhappy marriage, stifled dreams and a forbidden love affair.
Shooting Butterflies is a great commentary on human relationships, from Grace’s bond with her Step Mother, Mrs Shield, to the attachment to her first love, Jefferson and the affection for her husband and in-laws. When Grace was having difficulties with her marriage, the excerpt ‘‘She pretended to be asleep and he pretended to believe her” really sums up to me what it is like to be living with someone when there is tension. It’s this kind of delicate observation of human nature that I admire in this book. Furthermore, when describing the thoughts of meeting an old friend that she hasn’t seen for a long time, she thinks “I don’t know if you are married, if you have children, I don’t know what you do for a living, how you decorate your home, yet I’ve hugged you when you cried. I know that shellfish makes you puke and once, when we were scared, we shared a bed”. This captures perfectly to me the bond between old friends and the unspoken knowledge that despite being out of touch, and no matter where you are in life you still share these things.
As I mentioned before, this is not a heart warming journey filled with tenderness; in places it is very dark and very bleak; “the worst thing is losing someone you love and I don’t have that worry any more; I’ve lost them already”. Cobbold’s words had me sobbing into my pillow for about ten solid minutes one night, so raw is the pain that is portrayed. But, for me, underlying everything in the book is romance and emotion. Not just romance between a man and a woman, but real romance of thought and of the soul; for example, when thinking of her miscarriages “She fervently hoped there was such a thing as reincarnation and that her incomplete babies had been able to return to base to be told, with a smile and a slap on the back, ‘Better luck next time’”. This to me is a romantic and hopeful way of looking at a terrible situation.
Overall this book to me is perfect (I mean it, I loved it!). As a main character, Grace is not a wishy washy romantic heroine, she is flawed and has a very black outlook, and this non-traditional characterisation really appeals to me (not being a fan of traditional romantic novels). The emotion is real and raw in places, but not over the top, enough that you can really ‘feel’ the heart of story. There is a dusting of witticisms to lighten the air, and there is enough of a mystery to make you want to find out what happens next. Having just picking this book at random from the shelves at my local bookshop, I am now a full supporter of judging a book by its cover! I will definitely be reading Marika Cobbold’s other books.