Sarajevo, spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – whether Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.
When violence finally spills over, Zora, an artist and teacher, sends her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe that hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind while the city falls under siege. As the assault deepens and everything they love is laid to waste, black ashes floating over the rooftops, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over. Theirs is a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope.
· Published to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–96)
· Exquisite storytelling about twentieth-century conflict, for readers of The Tiger’s Wife, The Cellist of Sarajevo or Half of a Yellow Sun
· Supported by an unmissable publicity and marketing campaign
Average rating from 22 members
Such a beautiful narration about a part of history I know very little about. Morris's writing and characters will stay with me for a long time.
I was so intrigued to read this novel on discovering that it was set during the siege of Sarajevo, this being something I unfortunately don’t know much about. With such an original subject matter it’s brilliantly different from anything else I’ve read.
Historical fiction not to be missed. 🇧🇦
Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for letting me access an advance copy of this book in exchange for my feedback.
This is the brutal account of the war in Bosnia and the devastating consequences for the residents of Sarajevo. We have all encountered spells of suffering from cold, lack of heat, water and food but these are insightful in comparison to the horrors of these combined with a city under constant fire. It’s not a case of survival of the fittest, but perseverance, compromise and hope. I knew so little about this period in our history, as I’m sure others will agree, hence it is a remarkable book bringing enlightenment. An extremely readable account, written with empathy and courage. Once in a while a novel of this magnitude hits the shelves and I’d encourage anyone who has the slightest curiosity as to what actually occurred in Sarajevo at the beginning of the war to read this account of death and destruction. Although it’s a work of fiction, the facts run true.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Duckworth for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris is a story of the first year of the war in Sarajevo from the perspective of an artist named Zora. This is purely how the war changes the city and its people, how they survive in adversity and come together through the worst of times. Whilst the book covers the horrors and devastation of war, the author is able to tell the story without being overly morose, there is always some glimmer of hope. I would have liked to have spent more time with the characters before the war had started in order to have had a greater understanding of their dynamics and how they change through the book but I don’t believe this is something that is vital to the story. I appreciated the author’s note at the end as this is clearly a very personal story that needed to be told.
Although a fiction tale, Black Butterflies cuts deep to the heart of all the problems and violence that occurred in Sarajevo during those violent times of the '90s. As shells fell on the Bosnian capital, nationalist Croat and Serb forces carried out horrific "ethnic cleansing" attacks across the countryside. It took far too long for the United Nations to step in and bring peace to the region. By then, hundreds of thousands were thought to have perished.
Black Butterflies is a harrowing story filled with emotion, intensity and power. It does not hold back with the vivid and descriptive portrayals of war with all of its horrors and atrocities. There are some unnerving elements to the narrative, as Zora and her friends go through shot-and-shell.
This is an informative account, and although fictional, I found that it was impossible to put down. I kept doing research online to check the history and see the horrific pictures, and I can assure you it was not pretty. It is little wonder that many combatants were eventually bought up on war crimes.
I can see why the author selected Black Butterflies as the title for her book. All those black ashes that were floating over the rooftops.
This is a well-written and well-crafted novel. The book will transport you to the maelstrom, which is the Siege of Sarajevo, where all the incidents within the story are totally absorbing and very realistic.
I thought this was a cracking read and certainly opened my eyes to much of what went on behind the scenes. We can only assume there were hundreds of Zora's out there during this particular time in history, and Black Butterflies is a painful reminder of that fact.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend you read Black Butterflies at the earliest opportunity.
Thank you, NetGalley and Duckworth Books, for the ARC.
Black Butterflies – Priscilla Morris (2022)
Set in Bosnia’s capital during the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo, Priscilla Morris’s debut novel is both a brutal account of the horrors of the Bosnian War, and a warm reflection on love and community in the face of adversity.
Zora is a painter and professor of art, living comfortably in Sarajevo with her family. When her husband decides to bring Zora’s elderly mother to visit their daughter in England, Zora stays put, which turns out to be a life-altering decision. As the rumblings of civil unrest turn into all-out combat and famine, Zora and her neighbours become a close-knit community, sharing what little they have, building and rebuilding their lives amid a vicious war.
Fiction is so powerful; I knew so little about the Bosnian War going into this book, beyond the countries involved and that it was brutal. This novel is so well researched and captures the fear and humanity of the conflict so well; the story is based on the experience of the author’s uncle, which lends it reality and urgency.
Zora is a fully-rounded protagonist, and her struggles and decisions are just so relatable. She is warm and kind without being infallible, and her capacity for love shines through. Her neighbour Mirsad is another beautiful soul, as well as the other neighbours in her building. Despite the horrendous backdrop of the war, this book still has a gentleness at its core; there is beauty to be found in our darkest hours.
This novel also highlights the mundanity of life during conflict; everyone still has to eat, sleep and keep their minds occupied. Humans need stimulation and connection, and that doesn’t change when times become difficult. The imagery of black butterflies peppered throughout the book is powerful and destructive and will stay with me.
Thank you to Netgalley and Duckworth for the ARC! Black Butterflies will be published on May 5th, 2022.
Although the siege of Sarajevo occurred during my early childhood, I knew almost nothing about it, and was intrigued to read Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris, which charts the experience of a fifty-something year old artist, Zora, through the early days of the siege and beyond.
This was an engrossing and informative read, at times harrowing, but never heavy-handed. It felt particularly spine-tingling to observe Zora's disbelief that her happily cosmopolitan city could be ripped apart by wider events, and the guilt and inner conflict that she feels in her desire to escape her home as it descends into the horrors of siege warfare. I also welcomed the opportunity to read a novel with a mature female protagonist, a perspective that rarely seems to take centre stage in contemporary culture.
As with Cormack McCarthy's 'The Road', I emerged from this novel with a sense of gratitude for the safety and security of my own daily life, and for being given such a rich and sensitive insight into the Yugoslav wars.
Oh I loved this novel! Read in one evening I didn’t even notice the speed with which I was nearing the end. I was a teenager of 18 during the war and while I remember it being on the news for months it never really felt relatable to me in the way the world wars did.
Zora is a wonderful protagonist around the age I am now I warmed to her right away. The joy and worry of having adult children out in the world without you and the new joy of freedom from active parenting and time to spend on your own passions are themes many woman will emphasise with.
The use of art work throughout the book is beautiful, from Una and Zora’s tree on the apartment walls to the wonderful ‘pop up’ exhibition that Zora organises in the apartment block and in to the most tragic and beautiful of all the titular black butterflies. Never when I began the book did I realise that this was where the novel got its name and my heart broke for Zora and Sarajevo.
This novel reminds us how easily we can be lulled into sleepwalking into war. It is hard to imagine why so many Jews stayed in Western Europe in the late 1930’s when viewed with hindsight but as Morris shows us here, it happens gradually and as Zora found there are even pockets of positivity as when she realised how much time she had to spend painting because her family had gone to England. Zora and her neighbours remained convinced that the end was just around the corner and that the worst had already happened.
I loved the afterword and hearing the stories that inspired Priscilla Morris to write this book. I think she did everyone she mentioned proud.
I think this book will become a ‘must read’ and will do much to improve peoples knowledge of the war and who the peoples involved. And hopefully it will inspire a younger generation to learn about this period in history and to learn compassion for refugees and asylum seekers.
Historical fiction done right! I didn't know anything about the Bosnian War before reading this but you can tell from the story and the afterword, how much research and effort was put in by Morris to accurately bring the heartbreaking events of the Bosnian War into the book. The writing was simple enough to not be confusing but compelling enough to feel and see the various emotions Zora was feeling, despite it being written in 3rd person.
The imagery of the black butterflies carried throughout the book was beautiful, and a worthy title.
Thanks Netgalley for the ARC.
Multi-cultural Sarajevo, with its splendid Hapsburg past eventually comes under siege in the Bosnian War of 1992. With devastating results.
In her remarkably powerful debut novel, Morris recreates the full horror of life in a war zone that thankfully, most of us only see on our news bulletins, albeit with accompanying vivid, reporting from exceptional foreign correspondents like Kate Adie and Frank Gardener.
Zora, the central character is an artist and teacher with a studio in the National and University Library where she paints exquisite landscapes of her beloved homeland. As the situation becomes more dangerous for civilians, she arranges for her husband and elderly mother to relocate to her daughter Dubravka and her husband Steve’s house in England.
It all begins quietly enough. Streets are safe, shops are full and men still play chess under the trees. But very quickly and coinciding with the bitter winter, snipers, explosions and fires reduce the city to a hell hole. Scraps of black paper are soon, all that is left of the magnificent library and Zora’s paintings. She and her neighbours join forces to survive but conditions become increasingly brutal, and hunger, fear, cold, lack of water and grief begin to take their toll.
It takes unbelievable courage, determination and resilience just to survive, let alone maintain some kind of feeling.
Thank you, @NetGalley and @DuckworthBooks for my pre-release copy in return for an honest review.
Bravo, Priscilla Morris. A privilege to read your novel.
Zora is a landscaper painter, trapped in the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. Isolated from her family, she'll try to survive the conflict, with her friends' help.
Like one of Zora's paintings, Priscilla tells the story of Sarajevo's war survivors and the atrocities they had to endure during the years of war. Describing small pieces of the surroundings, the feelings, the sounds and the smells, she's adding another stroke to the final painting.
It's an emotional and immersive book, rich in context without falling into gore details. A delicate piece of art for a cruel part of Europe's recent history.
Beautifully written and so sad - I remember this well, being on our doorstep and feeling for all those trapped in Sarajevo, which I'd visited before all this happened. Also knew people from Sarajevo over here and it was horrible for them. This brings it all to life so we can all see what they went through. But how awful to have to live with wondering what happened to those left behind.
Black Butterflies is a compelling piece of historical fiction, a very readable account of civilian life during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. Empathic and immersive, it’s a story of humanity and community in a war zone: a story of survival when everything seems to be falling apart.
Morris is interested in the everyday practicalities of living in a war zone – how to eat, sleep and stave off boredom – and her unassuming prose reflects that. It’s clear and easy to read, but she also captures some real moments of beauty and gut-wrenching brutality. The ‘black butterflies’ are a brilliant example of this, an image which is poetic, tragic and literal all at once. The writing may seem understated, but I was impressed at how skilfully crafted it is, especially for a debut.
Black Butterflies is a rare gem of a novel that celebrates kindness amidst horror, without romanticising war in any way. Highly recommended.
Black Butterflies tells the story of Zora, an artist living in Sarajevo when the Bosnian war breaks out in 1992. The piece of historical fiction is beautifully written, Zora's story is both heartbreaking and full.of hope and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Whilst the Bosnian war took place during my lifetime, I was too young to remember it clearly and everything I know about it, I have learned through books. Black Butterflies marks the 30th anniversary but as I read the story, there are times it is hard to believe this was only 30 years ago. The book spans the first year of war, as the siege begins and through that first frozen winter. Zora is a wonderful protagonist, relatable, full.of empathy but flawed too and I respected the way Morris told her story without romanticising war. It is a tale of community and hope through adversity and the note at the end showed me what an important story it was for her to tell.
This is a fantastic piece of historical fiction and I highly recommend it
Black Butterflies is literary fiction but reads almost like a memoir. It takes you to Sarajevo in 1992 real time through the eyes of Zora, an artist and tutor who along with her neighbours experiences the brunt of the siege. This siege, by some Serbs, surrounded what had been a wonderful multi-ethic, highly cultured society. A society none expected would turn into a war zone.
The language the author uses is incredible in both its beauty and its harshness. It’s also immersive. I was in Sarajevo, and it is rare a book has so much power to transport me in such a multi-sensory way. The horror, the moments of lightness, the unremitting awfulness of losing almost everything… no work, no food, no power, no water… while being under fire. It all became absolutely real and that is an incredible talent.
I guessed early on that the author had access to first hand accounts and this proved to be the case. Although fictional, Black Butterflies is a melding of two family stories, and the experiences of a larger number of people, but skilfully woven together they make a unified whole.
A word of warning though; if you are particularly anxious about the situation in Ukraine, this isn’t the time to read this book. However if you would prefer to think on how conflicts do end, how people come out of the other side and go on to lead normal lives, then do.
Published to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–96)
Sheer escapism, beautifully written, I will look for more of this author’s work.
My thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for my advance copy of this title. I highly recommend it.
Zora, her husband and mother all live in Sarajevo. When Sarajevo is attacked her husband and mother leave for England where their daughter lives but Zora stays behind as she teaches at the local college. Eventually Sarajevo is under seige the phones lines are cut, there is no postal system and the electric supply is sporadic, there is also constant bombing. The UN drops emergency food parcels, will Zora manage to escape?
Well written, invoking the depravations of the people, I would recommend reading this book.
In a Nutshell: An enlightening and traumatising fictional account of a war I wasn’t much aware of – the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. Well-researched, well-written, traumatising, bitter-sweet.
1992, Sarajevo. Zora is a 55 year old artist who teaches art at college and loves to paint bridges and nature scenes in her spare time. She stays with her 70 year old husband and also has her 83 year mother staying nearby. When the war begins, Zora’s family doesn’t believe that it would go on for long. But when the law and order situation degrades after some ethnic groups tussle over their rights, Zora’s husband plans to take his sick mother-in-law to the UK where his daughter lives with her family. However, the transport lines are closed soon after his departure and Zora find herself stuck all alone in a war-torn city, with hardly any resources, very few trustworthy neighbours, and no hope of escape.
The story is narrated in the third person perspective of Zora.
First, know a little more about the Bosnian War to realise how historically significant (and monumentally stupid and infinitely wasteful) it was. Estimates suggest around 100,000 people were killed during the war. Over 2.2 million people were displaced, making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. In addition, an estimated 12,000–50,000 women were raped, mainly carried out by Serb forces, with most of the victims being Bosniak women. The author focusses on the experiences of those surviving in the part of Sarajevo that was under attack by the Serbs. I was grateful that she didn’t include any rape narratives in her story – I don’t think I could have handled that. Simply reading this statistic is enough to depress me.
Where the book worked for me:
💐 It was an eye-opener! There were so many situations I simply couldn't fathom - your family property being distributed among strangers because of a communist government's weird beliefs, being on the waiting list for more than a decade to get a flat allotted, the government declaring that anyone can move into empty house as the owners have “abandoned” them… and this is even before the actual war began! How we take our privileges under democracy for granted! Sigh.
💐 The author pays fair attention to each of the ethnic groups in Sarajevo. To use her stats, “half of Sarajevo is Muslim, a quarter Serb and fewer than one in ten are Croat. About a third of the population are in mixed marriages.” All of these are represented fairly in the story through characters coming from various ethnic identities. More importantly, no sides are taken. (The author mentions in her note that there are no ethnic identities but national identities in Bosnia, but unless you read her note entirely, you won’t understand why. So I stuck to the word “ethnic” in this review.)
💐 There are no breaks through regular chapters. Instead, the narrative is divided in long sections named by season – Spring, Summer,... This was a great way to highlight how time passes differently under situations of siege. (Don’t we all remember how time almost stopped during the lockdown?!?) This feels like one endless story that spirals slowly into a kind of claustrophobic hopelessness.
💐 The title has a special significance in the story, and this gets revealed only about the midway mark in a distressing event. I would have thought it to be an exaggeration but when I read that part, I remembered a scene from the first episode of the TV series ‘Chernobyl” where a similar experience with “black butterflies” was shown. That scene helped me visualise this event properly. In addition, you can search online for the meaning of “black butterfly” and once you read the book, you will see what an apt title it is for this story.
💐 There is a strong underlying theme of bridges, which is so ironic in a war story. Zora’s specialty is painting bridges. Her latest artwork is set around one of the main bridges of the city. Some folk stories within the narrative are set around bridges. And yet, all the bridges between Sarajevo and the outside world have been destroyed by the war, as have the internal metaphorical ridges between the different ethnic groups.
💐 There are many situations in the book that will show you the side of war you have hardly ever seen in fiction. Some scenes create a claustrophobic feeling; others are way too disquieting. The story hits hard on your emotions. The writing enhances the impact. Sample this line written by Zora in a letter:
“We're all refugees now. We spend our days waiting for water, for bread, for humanitarian handouts: beggars in our own city.”
💐 The ending is perfect for such a story.
💐 The author has researched her book well and it shows in the detailed and precise penning of incidents and feelings.
💐 The author’s note clarifies which two person’s experiences she combined and adapted into this story. That lent a lot of validity to what would otherwise have seemed as fictional events improbable in real life.
💐 I couldn’t believe that this was a debut novel. It has a maturity lacking in the writing of far more experienced authors.
Where the book could have worked better for me:
⚠ If there was one thing that strongly took away from my experience, it was the romantic track. Yes, yes, I understand… war time, living in the present, exceptional circumstances, absent spouses, can’t function within normal societal rules,.. blah blah.. But it was still forced and unnecessary to the main plot.
⚠ There are a lot of lengthy descriptions of the city and its sites. It felt like an emotional ode to Sarajevo, a tad overdone. (This is understandable given the topic of the book.)
⚠ I wasn’t much familiar with the details of these events except for a skeletal knowledge of the war having taking place. So I found myself a little lost at times in understanding the geography and the politics of the region. I also didn’t understand what issue the war began over. (Then again, one of the characters says that even they fail to understand why the war took place in the first place. So I guess there’s no real answer to this question.) I would have appreciated a brief note at the end on the facts behind the cause of the war and the political climate at the time, just like the facts behind the ethnic groups were clarified in the author’s note.
⚠ The book is marked as literary fiction but it is more of a commercial historical fiction. This didn’t make any difference to me this time but to those who expect a book to cater to its advertised genre, this could be a minor problem.
I couldn’t help connecting this story with the situation in Ukraine right now. Of course, the author hasn’t written this book to capitalise on the current war because I had received this book from NG in January and it is meant to be published on the 30th anniversary of the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’. But there are so many similarities between the experience of Zora and what we read about Ukraine in the newspaper. It makes me feel like no matter how much our technology progresses, we humans don’t progress in “humanity” – our thoughts are still all about power and control, whether over nature or over other people. We are truly a selfish species on the whole. 😟
All I can say is, if you are looking for a book that unfolds the hidden costs of war on the citizens forced into it, and that juxtaposes many opposite feelings - vulnerability and resilience, hope and hopelessness, devastation and creation, this is the book for you. But please note, if you are in an anxious or depressed state of mind, I suggest you stay away from this book until you are in a happier mental place.
My thanks to Duckworth Books and NetGalley for the DRC of “Black Butterflies”. This review is voluntary and contains my honest opinion about the book.
Set during the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War which took place in the 1990s this is an extremely well researched, thoughtful, and sympathetic novel It follows the life of Zora a Bosnian Serb who is trapped in Sarajevo on her own and charts the steady and relentless collapse of the life she has known. As the hardships to be endured pile up Zora finds support and love from and with her neighbors which enables her to carry on living amid all the mounting horror. This is an emotional story written with tenderness and understanding drawing on the experiences of the author's family for authenticity. The worst of the horrors Zora endures are described in an understated way but remain shocking without the need for extensive graphic detail.
This is an excellent debut novel that plays on the emotions of the reader and gives a timely reminder of the futility of war without taking sides. I have no hesitation in recommending this book.
What a beautiful, haunting and brutal book!
This is the story of the Siege of Sarajevo told through the eyes of an artist, showing the terrors of war and violence, of families and friends split apart by conflict.
These are not events I was familiar with, being born in 1992 myself, so it was extremely eye-opening.
Zora's love for her city was heartwrenching at times, but her strength and perseverance were inspiring.
The descriptions of the city were amazing, it was incredibly easy to imagine everything. I also loved the folklore tales dispersed throughout the story.
The burning down of the library and people risking their lives to save the books really hit me hard. The reason for the title of the book is perfect.
I am so emotional right now having finished this horrifying story, I am in awe of Priscilla Morris' truly touching writing and ability to tell this story. The ending is quite bittersweet, the descriptions of England were incredibly spot on and made me tear up even more - with hope.
I can't wait for this book to be published so I can persuade everyone I know to read it. I don't think I'll ever forget Zora and her hardships.
Thank you to NetGalley and Duckworth Books for this ARC.