It is fair to say that I feel quite traumatised by Paper Butterflies, in ways which I should have anticipated, having read Heathfield’s Seed a few months ago. Paper Butterflies tells the story of June, treated horribly by her stepmother and not helped by her apparently blind father. An example of the cruelty June endures: the book opens with her stepmother, Kathleen, forcing her to drink glass after glass of water, then refusing to let her use the toilet, in order to guarantee that June wets herself on the bus to school. This is on the first page, so it’s not like Heathfield sneaks up on you with the themes of abuse and neglect.
June’s miseries aren’t confined to home, as she also has no friends at school and, despite frequent visits to the school nurse and chats with teachers, nobody seems to notice that she’s being badly treated by her family. To add further misery, June’s mother died in suspicious circumstances and Kathleen only stops tormenting her physically to use this as further ammunition against her stepdaughter. The first chink of light in June’s story is her friendship with Blister, whose chaotic but loving family is perhaps too overtly in opposition to June’s, but nonetheless provides her with respite.
The story is told in flashback form, with sections titled ‘Before’ and ‘After;’ it’s quite a while before we learn what it is that splits the past and present, and I was not prepared for it; Heathfield accomplishes a real shock which makes the last section of the novel very different to the rest. The book is also deceptively slight; I read it in one sitting, but it is far from a light and easy read. I found it so frustrating that nobody noticed that June was being abused, but perhaps that is Heathfield’s point; Kathleen is also frighteningly sneaky, forcibly overfeeding June when the adults around her would probably be more alert to weight loss than weight gain. It all adds up to a novel which is necessary reading.