Terri Janke was an indigenous woman in her thirties when she published Butterfly Song in 2005. Like her heroine, Tarena, Janke also studied law in Sydney in the early 90s and is of mixed Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage, so it’s probably safe to say many events in the novel follow Janke’s own life.
But what makes this novel different from a coming-of-age indigenous girl makes good story, is the device of telling the story around the fate of a pearl-shell brooch carved on Thursday Island and given to the carver’s lover, and which then turns up forty years later for sale in a Cairns antique shop.
Tarena has just finished her law degree when she’s asked by her mother, Lily, to run a case of misappropriation against the purported owner, and the shop. Lily has recognised the brooch as one owned by her late mother, Francesca and carved by her father, Kit, who died when Lily was a little girl.
Moving between TI, Cairns and Sydney and covering fifty years, or so, Janke introduces us to the love affair of Francesca and Kit, Lily and her brother Tally’s young life in Cairns, Tarena’s childhood and her life as a law student.
Some of these strands are more interesting than others. The scenes of pearl diving and life on TI in the 40s, and life in Queensland for indigenous people in the 50s, were interesting for me, but I found the scenes of student life in the 80s fairly bland.
Music, songs, frangipani trees and the ocean soften the reality of racism and the harshness of some aspects of the characters’ lives.
Throughout, Janke uses the brooch motif to weave all the threads together, and the courtroom scene where the ownership of the brooch is determined is suitable tense and moving.
Butterfly Song is an easy read and I appreciated getting an insight into the life of indigenous people in the Torres Strait and Queensland.
As a footnote, Janke was named NAIDOC person of the year in 2011: she’s now a well-known and successful lawyer specialising in indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.