Butterfly Wings, by Rosa Aneiros (translated by Jonathan Dunne), is mostly set around the comings and goings of customers who frequent a Galician café. This is located by ‘a prodigious crossroads where all the currents of the city, the region, Europe, flow together.’
The café is run by Patricia, who rents the business and a few rooms above the premises from the long time owners, Lola and Eusebio, who have retired. The elderly couple also live above the café. From their window, Eusebio watches activity in the street below.
As well as students, tourists and passing businessmen, the place has its regulars. Much of the book focuses on telling their stories, and of those whose actions effect them.
Before school each day a young boy meets his Grandpa for Cola Ca and churros. When his class is cancelled, they spend the day in the café. The boy would prefer to go home but the Grandpa does not have a key. He tells the boy they cannot go to his place as he lives in a cemetery – this reference is later explained.
Iqbal comes in each day to use the computer, sending loving emails to his girlfriend in London. Patricia secretly reads these and wishes someone would write of such feelings for her.
Adolpho is a taxi driver harbouring family secrets of which he is ashamed. He drinks with Paco, who lost his job and now gambles away the pension he can barely spare. Both men drink brandy to smooth over the cracks that have opened up in their lives – the resentments that percolate and hurts they nurse.
Mohamed runs a restaurant a few doors up from the café. He tries to be a good Muslim but, having failed to finish his medical degree, is now afraid of being perceived as the radical he fears he could become if not careful. The slights he receives from locals he blames on their sinful ways.
Away from the café, Darai foresakes his girlfriend, Aysel, to fight for the independence of the Kurdish people. Ana from Buenos Aires is offered a job because the company receives grants for employing immigrants. Two brothers climb a mountain in an attempt to cross a fortified border designed to keep them from entering Europe. Their aunt sits in the café by the phone each day, hoping to hear they have crossed safely. A cleaner who frequents the café has a son fighting in Sudan.
“Climbers don’t conquer when they reach the summit, they conquer when they get back to base camp safe and sound.”
The backstories unfold of the estranged and the missing, the abandoned and misunderstood. There is grief at loss – of people and opportunity. There is: discrimination and sexism, parental coercion, thwarted love and futile protest. Cultural favours are gendered which adds fuel to domestic discontent. Choices have consequences and people’s experiences change them.
“we can’t go back now. Once you get here, the wind erases your prints in the sand and you forget the way back home. You can’t go back to the beginning”
The personal dramas being played out occur alongside what appears everyday, yet who can know another’s concerns when so much is never shared.
“The clients cluster around the marble tables, accompanied by all their friends, work colleagues, mortgages, test results, supermarket vouchers and various illnesses.”
The reader is offered snapshots that evoke sympathy, along with less appealing characteristics – monkey nut shells dropped on the floor where men will spit to show their hatred during some topic of conversation. Wives kept at home, because that is where they are deemed to belong, phone family and friends to express their unhappiness at a situation where their powerlessness can turn to desperation.
The writing achieves a fine balance between succinct, engaging storytelling within which powerful themes are explored. The structure enables each character to be developed while plot threads progress and add to the underlying tension. The final scenes include aspects that are horrifying alongside those that are uplifting. The café is a microcosm of multicultural Europe, with all the hopes and prejudices its people propagate and endure.
Butterfly Wings is published by Small Stations Press. My copy was provided gratis as part of a Giveaway hosted by Ninja Book Box.