The Butterfly Month by Ariella Kornmehl
Review and Interview
by Loren Nel
In this second novel by author, Ariella Kornmehl, Joni, a young Dutch doctor, finds herself working and living in rural South Africa. Betrayed by her parents, her lover and her own body, she has left Amsterdam and has found a strange sort of refuge in the protective sense of order forced on her by the dangers of living in South Africa. Increasingly numb to the horrors she sees everyday at the Emergency Ward, Joni maintains a sense of control by reducing her life to a rigid routine of work and isolation behind the walls of her gated community. However, as the story unfolds, she finds herself unable to resist the growing bond formed with her housemaid, Zanele, and her two children. As the novel progresses towards its tragic conclusion, Joni begins to allow her tightly woven cocoon of protection to unravel, finding herself vulnerable to the unforgiving harshness of Africa and her own hidden fears.
I had the privilege of interviewing Ariella Kornmehl at the recent Brisbane Writer's Festival, and was struck by how her large smile and twinkling eyes seemed to contradict the intense sadness woven into her novel. However, talking with her about her experiences in Africa brought the motives behind her writing into sharp focus. Having lived a sheltered life in Amsterdam, she confesses herself that living in South Africa for two years challenged her perspectives of what the world is about. Despite the fact that she loved the country, she found herself changed when naivety was replaced by the stark reality of violence in a world where rules determine how people are allowed to interact, but where ironically, at the same time, so many of the rules meant to protect people are broken without care.
The central relationship of the novel, that between Joni and Zanele, was inspired by the friendship between Ariella and her own housemaid, and their experience with the unspoken code of behaviour that governs the relationships between black and white in post-apartheid South Africa. Her insights into the country and its complexities are impressive, and testify to her intelligence and contemplative nature. Ariella studied Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, and her sensitivity to people, and reflective nature certainly comes through in her writing. In style and subject matter, her work is reminiscent of celebrated South African writer J.M. Coetzee. The unapologetic honesty of her work is strident; she describes it herself as a staccato piano piece, sharp, to the point and unencumbered by excesses. Yet, despite the forthrightness of her writing, Ariella manages to imbue her work with layers of meaning that make for interesting reflection by the reader.
Did I like Ariella Kornmehl? Absolutely. She is amiable, talented, down to earth and eloquent. Did I like the novel? I am still not sure. It jarred with my natural sense of optimism, even though it realistically depicts the tragedy of Africa. But it did resonate with me for a long time after reading it, and that, undeniably, is the mark of good literature.