Kathleen Houlihan's Reviews > The Knife and the Butterfly

The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez
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Jan 12, 2012

really liked it
Read in January, 2012

Thank you, Ashley Hope Perez, for writing books that need to be written. I can't wait to share this book with my kids in Juvie!

The Knife and the Butterfly is about a 15 year old kid named Martin "Azael" Arevalo, or Azz for short. He's a member of the MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known for its pervasiveness and brutality. The story opens with Azz in a cell. This is nothing new for him, but this time, he can't remember exactly what happened to land him there.

The story takes place primarily in Azz's cell, where he racks his brains trying to figure out what happened to him -- he can't even get anyone to tell him what he's accused of, and suspects that they're trying to manipulate him into confessing... but for what crime?

We see parts of Azz's life on the outside through flashbacks, and when Azz is taken to observe a girl named Lexi, a second perspective of the story begins to unfold, told from her perspective in therapy sessions and diary entries. Azz believes that his observation of Lexi is supposed to result in some kind of confession...either from him or Lexi. But he doesn't recognize her, or know what information she might have about him.

The voice of Azz is pitch perfect... for anyone who has worked with gang members or troubled youth in the Texas area, Azz could be a dozen kids you know. His sense of loyalty to his friends, his denial that he needs any kind of adult support or intervention, and his playboy posturing and heartfelt love of his girlfriend all ring true. Some of the scenes described are intense, but Perez walks a fine line between including enough information to make the story believable, while not treading into TMI territory (she mostly succeeds, though there are a few lines where I thought she pushed it a little far). Substance abuse, especially huffing and taking "bars" or Xanax, is described in detail, as tagging and mural-painting are a key theme throughout the story.

Sex is mentioned -- both the kind found in a loving relationship, as well as throwaway one night stand, and drug-addled varieties -- but not described. Some of the words used, are not curse words, but are a bit vulgar and crude and may make some adults wince (blow job, tits, cum, etc) but they all make sense in the place they're being used, and the characters who are using them. Don't get me wrong, though... there's plenty of profanity!

If I compare this story to any others, it will give away the twist, so I'll refrain from doing that, but I will say that the book follows in the growing trend of magical realism, and that while the story is certainly one of redemption, the message isn't too heavy handed. One might even quibble that it's a little too obscure... at the end, I wasn't entirely sure what message I was being left with, though it was undoubtedly positive.

The characters are the one thing holding me back from a five-star review at this juncture. There was a lot of information whizzing around, and while I definitely saw some character growth and development in the story, I felt a queer lack of empathy for either character. This is unusual for me, since I work with this population, and experience empathy for them on a daily basis. With both characters, whenever I was getting even a little bit close to them, there would be something in the story that would push you away again. While both characters are flawed, I felt like I should have been closer to both kids at the end of the story, and was surprised at how detached I felt at the end. Near the end of the story, just when you think Azz may be developing some sympathy for Lexi - and when he says he is himself -- he calls her the "girl with big tits and blow job lips" in the same breath as he's saying something sympathetic about her, and it makes his whole sentiment ring false at a time when we should be rooting for him. The relationship with Azz's aunt and uncle also needed a bit more depth for me. Lexi's family was much better fleshed out, so it was easier to sympathize with her, but Azz remained standoffish, all the way to the end.

There were so many elements I was excited to see (finally!) in print in a book for teens, but at some points, it felt a little bit like an academic exercise to try and fit them all into the story... it was almost as if I were checking off things in my head when I came across them (abandoned child, check. hard core gangbanger, check. romance, check. struggling reader, check. misunderstood and lonely girl, check.) but I think Ms. Perez did a good job of weaving them all together into a cohesive whole.

The story is a very compelling one, and I truly believe it will find a welcome audience in teens who are struggling with gang violence in their lives. The mystery may reveal itself a little early on for adults, but that doesn't lessen the desire to have a solid answer to your questions as a reader. While the ending to Azz's story leaves some room for interpretation, the end of Lexi's story is fully spelled out, including an epilogue and an author's note that provides more back story.

I'm going to have to reserve final judgement on this one until I share it with my incarcerated teens -- I'm very interested in their response. On the one hand, I could see them absolutely loving it... it's very raw and real and the pacing is pretty quick. On the other hand, I could see them having a hard time swallowing the magic realism. Their tastes tend towards realistic fiction, but this one has so many realistic elements that they might overlook their preference for "realistic" stories... if they can be convinced to care about the characters, and the decisions they ultimately make.
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