Enigma and intensity in teenage awakening
THE first novel of Sonya Hartnett’s that I read was the haunting Wilful Blue ( 1994). Hartnett’s lush yet fresh prose, spiced with gothic, her novel’s combination of intense observation, sensual detail, pervasive melancholy, sensational events and characters with unusual, fin-de-race names, had for me more the feel of, say, American southern literature, or the work of writers such as Wilkie Collins, than what we were accustomed to in Australian literature.
And her characters, in their 20s, were older and more sophisticated than people were accustomed to in the field of young adult fiction, in which genre the book was first published.
Controversy raged over Hartnett’s subse- quent novels, several of which received numerous children’s literature awards. The argument was not because of the quality of her writing, which was rarely in dispute, but about whether her books were truly YA.
Many critics, librarians and teachers felt the issues dealt with in her novels — such as suicide and incest — put them beyond the YA pale, when a common fate of prizewinning novels in this field is to be mined for themes and issues for discussion in the high school classroom.
Typically, the controversy began to die down once Hartnett’s books started being published overseas — sometimes as YA, sometimes as adult — and began gathering children’s literature awards there too, including The Guardian ’ s children’s fiction prize in Britain and, most recently, the very rich and renowned Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden.
Meanwhile, the author continued to confound expectations by diverting from her trademark Australian gothic to the lovely children’s novella set during World War I, The Silver Donkey , and the folk-tale feel of The Ghost’s Child .
And now to Butterfly , which again occupies her familiar crossover territory, but which is nevertheless a departure.
It is Jamesian, perhaps, rather than gothic, in its exploration of the incomplete knowledge of the child face-to-face with the adult world, a bit like What Maisie Knew, but with a twist.
It is not only the child who has the incomplete knowledge in Butterfly.
Never mind those classroom issues, Hartnett’s interest is in the way families work — especially unhappy ones, of course, following