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Book Review: The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison

The Butterfly Clues is a deceptive book, but in really good ways.  I first stumbled across this title while looking for new mysteries to add to my collection for this year’s summer reading theme.  And make no mistake, there is a mystery underlying this tale, but at its core it is really a complex, gut wrenching and gritty contemporary tale of a young girl living with OCD in a family haunted by loss.

Lo, short for Penelope, is controlled by forces inside her mind.  The numbers 3, 6 and 9 are safe numbers.  She has rituals for coming and for going.  She tries to keep them hidden, but they are hard to avoid.  Sometime items speak to her and once they do, she can’t avoid their whisper humming in her brain – she must steal them.  Lo breaks your heart; she is tormented by these urges that she can not control and no one understands.  But they are not the only things that torment her; her brother descended into drug use and died alone in a part of Cleveland that no one dare go known as Neverland.  But go Lo does, and that is where the mystery begins.

When we first meet Lo she is standing in alleyway when a bullet pierces a wall close beside her.  She soon learns that she is the only sort of witness to the death of a young stripper named Sapphire.  Already prone to obsessions, Lo feels compelled to learn more about Sapphire.  With each step closer to the truth, Lo spirals out of control, puts herself in increasing danger, and finds the answer to questions she never knew to ask.

Neverland is the seedy side of Cleveland that people from Lakewood aren’t supposed to go.  Bad things happen there.  That is where Lo’s brother, Oren, died.  That is where Sapphire was murdered.  And if Lo isn’t careful, she won’t return from Neverland either.  In this world, she meets a cast of characters that are sometimes free, sometimes seedy, and never who the seem to be.  Neverland is a dark place, a character of its own in this tale, pulsing with personality that hints of both a danger and a freedom that entices.  It is a very real place, this is no fantasy; but it is a place drawn so richly that it takes on a personality of its own.  It is a haunting place, where people run away from their problems and, barely surviving, take on nicknames and hide in shadows.

All the characters in the Butterfly Clues are in fact richly drawn.  Flynt is mysterious, with surprising secrets of his own. And Lo’s parents are ghosts occupying space in the home, but shadows of their former self haunted by their loss.  The rich characterization adds layers to this tale, that when slowly peeled away expose a stunning truth and allow the pieces of Po’s puzzle to come together in both satisfying and unsatisfying ways.  The puzzle is solved, but there are no easy answers when you are plagued by the mental health issues that plague Lo.

Part of the value of story, is that it allows us to step into minds other than ours and develop compassion and understanding for experiences different than our own.  For me, that is the real value in The Butterfly Clues – it helps us all walk in the shoes of someone with OCD and really feel the anxiety that happens when a ritual is interrupted and you must start again.  As a reader, your heart literally breaks for Lo.  At one point she is running for her life but she can’t run because she has to say and do certain things upon entering a room or leaving it.  The tension in these scenes was truly palpable.

I don’t have the talent or the words to describe the dark richness of The Butterfly Clues.  It’s pacing is a slow simmering perfection, its world is teeming with danger, and its characters are fleshed out mysteries.  This is not an easy read and it requires a sophisticated, mature reader – in part because of the details and in part because of the labyrinth that is mental illness.  I can see where teen readers will have difficulty sticking with Lo and her constant refrain of “tap, tap, banana” – one of her rituals.  The only thing I wish is that there would have been a little more explanation about how Lo’s rituals developed.  Pair this with Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser and you get a good discussion about OCD and mental health issues.  At the end of Kissing Doorknobx there is a good explanation about OCD in terms of there being a door in your brain that just won’t close until you do certain rituals and how that results in these compulsions.  The Butterfly Clues receives 4 out of 5 stars.