My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Length: 288 pages
Release date: 15 May 2018
Yusra Mardini fled her native Syria to the Turkish coast in 2015 and boarded a small dinghy full of refugees bound for Greece. When the small and overcrowded boat’s engine cut out, it began to sink. Yusra, her sister and two others took to the water, pushing the boat for three and a half hours in open water until they eventually landed on Lesbos, saving the lives of the passengers aboard. Butterfly is the story of that remarkable woman, whose journey started in a war-torn suburb of Damascus and took her through Europe to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Yusra Mardini is an athlete, one of People magazine’s twenty-five women changing the world, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and one of Time Magazine’s thirty most influential teens of 2016.
“I know I’m not Malala. I didn’t grow up wanting to change the world. I just wanted to swim.”
Where to start? Butterfly is an incredible, moving story that’s going on my all time favourites shelf. I don’t normally read from the biography/memoir genre, but a quick Google search of Yusra Mardini convinced me that I should read this book. Actually reading it has changed my mind; I now think that everyone should read this book.
I can barely remember a time when war in Syria wasn’t a given in the news, but as Yusra’s experience and the experiences of thousands of people like her show, the transition from peaceful, modern society to lethal war zone is much more plausible than we imagine. The change is scarily evident in the many available photos of precise locations before and after shelling:
Like these photos, Butterfly is a reminder of that simple and elusive truth as stated by Yusra: “Being a refugee is not a choice. Our choice is to die at home or risk death trying to escape.” Most of us have probably heard something along those lines many times, but no amount of repetition could compensate for hearing from beginning to end the real story of just one person. For me, it was like having a bucket of ice-cold water dumped on my face. The migrant crisis may be too complicated for me to grasp in entirety, but the candid narrative of one teenager’s life isn’t. No one could read Yusra’s story in full and still believe that she and her peers ought not have left Syria.
Yusra’s life alone is captivating material for a memoir, but it has to be said that Butterfly reads even better thanks to plain old good writing. I personally think it was a great choice to use the relatively unconventional style that it does. Most noticeably, the whole book is written in present tense, giving it the feel of a novel. At many points, Butterfly honestly reads like a contemporary YA thriller–which really isn’t a good thing, because ideally young people wouldn’t have bombs falling on them, but does speak to the immediacy of Yusra’s voice and the power of her experiences.
Another quality of Butterfly that I very much appreciate is how much Yusra pushes back against the sensationalisation of her story. Thanks to its surreal, almost cinematic potential, the famous boat anecdote has been warped beyond recognition by various media outlets. Compared to the frank account in Yusra’s memoir, even Wikipedia as of May 2018 gets it wrong. She and her sister did not, in fact, push a boat for three hours to Greece. In her own words, “only superwoman” could do that. The truth is rather less miraculous and no less inspiring.
“It’s just easier to laugh than to cry. If I cry, I’ll cry alone. But if we laugh, we can do it together. I guess no one knows how strong they can be until it’s their turn to deal with tragedy.“
The peril of bombs falling on Damascus, the terror of a dead motor out on the open sea, the chaos at Budapest Keleti train station that you likely remember seeing on the news–it’s all captured in stunning proximity. A thoroughly edited memoir may not tell all of its subject’s personality, but Yusra’s story feels so accessible and her thoughts so down-to-earth, I unequivocally rooted for her. I’ve got my fingers crossed for big things at Tokyo 2020. To end on a good note with Yusra’s declared mission:
“I have a message to spread: that being a refugee is not a choice. That we too can achieve great things.“
*Thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*