Butterfly Fish, the debut novel of East London writer Irenosen Okojie, has been a labour of love. The novel follows Joy who, after the death of her mother, inherits a diary and a unique brass head. It is a novel that sees every family history as a puzzle.
Written over the course of six years, it began as a short story and developed into what Okojie sees as an epic novel.
The transition from short story to novel was strange for Okojie. “I love writing short stories because there’s an ending to them,” she says. “You can realise an idea and move on. I feel my writing got better this way. When I was writing the novel, I could see that growth. It was a weird leap. Writing a novel is like being left at sea on a little boat and being left to your own devices.”
Butterfly Fish is a story about love, loss and inheritance that departs from traditional African narratives – something Okojie’s friends found disconcerting at first.
“People have particular perceptions,” says Okojie. “There is the idea of the African story – about families going through strife, struggling, travelling around. There are middle-class Africans. That’s my background, my story. This is an epic story that transcends race and class. It’s an African story, yes – but it’s also an English one too.”
Okojie’s influences are not limited to English and African culture. The novel’s strength is its ability to make the abstract concrete. She sees Ben Okri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez as influences too.
These influences are evident when one of the characters imagines themselves being “cut into eight slices [and] served on a different platter” for each of his wives to swallow. Memories literally leak through the ceilings and intrude on the characters’ daily lives.
Butterfly Fish is a work of contrasts: abstract and concrete; love and loss; African and English; epic and intimate. It is a novel that Okojie hopes everybody will be able to relate to, regardless of where they come from.
Butterfly Fish is published by
Jacaranda Books. RRP: £12.99 (hardback)