Book review: Robin Lim’s “Butterfly People”

If you read Robin Lim’s biography, it’s hard to imagine her having time to do anything else aside from delivering babies in such areas as Bali, Aceh,  Yogyakarta, and Haiti. What she does is pretty much a full-time job, and you can’t really blame her if she doesn’t have time for anything else.

Of course, she’s an exceptional enough person to multitask. Not only has she written on maternal health, she’s also been writing poetry and even a full-on novel. It’s entitled “Butterfly People”, and it’s basically a fictionalized account of her life and her family’s history from the pre-war era to the present time.

Is “Butterfly People” going to be as exciting as Robin Lim’s actual life? Or is truth going to turn out to be much more engrossing than fiction?

It’s a little difficult to provide a succinct summary of “Butterfly People” as it doesn’t exactly tell a linear story. Sure, the events in the book are roughly in chronological order, but the narrative in each chapter jumps back and forth in time, showing how some characters end up in the future.

And while the character of Lola Vicenta does become a common thread throughout the novel, most of the chapters can be standalone stories by themselves — complete and full on their own. There’s not a lot of plot going on, at least in the conventional sense of the word.

Do those things become problematic throughout the course of the 200+ pages of the novel? Only if you like your books conventionally plotted and comfortingly linear. But if you’re in for something a little more ephemeral and dreamy, “Butterfly People” certainly fits the bill.

“Dreamy” certainly works as a way to describe Robin Lim’s prose. As rooted in reality as most of the stories are, Lim manages to lend them a magical veneer. It’s not like anything overtly magical happens in any of the chapters, but it just reads that way, if that makes any sense. I really got this impression specifically from the first chapter when Vicenta is born, the chapter where female (and male) circumcision is tackled, and the one where Sissy dies from childbirth.

As a (fictionalized) family chronicle, it certainly is very engaging and just fun to read. If the madcap adventures of Lola Vicenta aren’t enough to get you turning the pages, then there are chapters like “On Being ‘Half’ Girls”, “Apples”, and “Perfect Spelling”, which will definitely tug at your heartstrings.

There is a little bit of agenda-setting in the book, but nothing as overt or as blunt as anything written by Ayn Rand. You won’t feel badgered to agree with her point of view; at most, she’s just asking you to consider an alternative to the way things are currently done.

A slim volume that leaves a much stronger impression than you would originally expect, “Butterfly People” is certainly a great addition to anybody’s bookshelf.

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