Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
Genre: Contemporary, Magic Realism, Young Adult
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: February 1 2011
Hardcover: 216 pages
After a marijuana-addled brawl with a rival gang, 16-year-old Azael wakes up to find himself surrounded by a familiar set of concrete walls and a locked door. Juvie again, he thinks. But he can’t really remember what happened or how he got picked up. He knows his MS13 boys faced off with some punks from Crazy Crew. There were bats, bricks, chains. A knife. But he can’t remember anything between that moment and when he woke behind bars.
Azael knows prison, and something isn’t right about this lockup. No phone call. No lawyer. No news about his brother or his homies. The only thing they make him do is watch some white girl in some cell. Watch her and try to remember.
Lexi Allen would love to forget the brawl, would love for it to disappear back into the Xanax fog it came from. And her mother and her lawyer hope she chooses not to remember too much about the brawl—at least when it’s time to testify.
Lexi knows there’s more at stake in her trial than her life alone, though. She’s connected to him, and he needs the truth. The knife cut, but somehow it also connected
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: I’ve had Ashley Hope Pérez on my radar since Doret waxed poetic about her books for her Smugglivus post. When I saw this book on Netgalley, I had to request it.
Warning: this review contains very minor spoilers.
15-year-old Azael wakes up to find himself locked up after a fight against a rival gang. He assumes he is in Juvie again but the conditions of his incarceration are somewhat different this time around. He doesn’t get the phone call he is entitled to, there is no lawyer talking to him, no one will tell him what’s happening and he spends his days observing this white girl called Lexi, in another cell. He knows she is connected to what happened to him but he can’t really remember the details of the night he was arrested – and it is imperative that he does so, before Lexi goes to trial and before time runs out.
The story progresses as Azael tries to not only remember what happened that night but also to understand what brought him there and how Lexi is related to all of it. The narrative reflects this progression by alternating between “now” and “then” from Azael’s point of view. The conditions of Azael’s incarceration are very unsettling from the start – to him and to the reader. It is obvious that something is afoot and I guessed that the story would involve a certain degree of supernatural elements which places the story firmly within the realm of Magic Realism. Although this piece of information might be slightly spoilery, I do think it is important to share it with potential readers who might approach this expecting a straightforward realistic Contemporary YA. I am not usually a fan of Magic Realism but it worked here because the focus is much more on the “realism” rather than on the “magical” aspect of the story.
Plot-wise The Knife and the Butterfly is loosely inspired by a real event that took place in a Houston park and which involved members of the MS-13 gang. This is merely the point of departure though as the story here is Ashley Hope Perez’s own and simply put, the heart of it is the characters and their circumstances.
The book depicts gang-life with complexity focusing on the low-level members that make up its ranks. As such, Azael’s life as a member of the MS-13 is one of crime and violence but also of close bonds of friendship, loyalty and survival. It is not about glorifying it at all but it does provide a thoughtful insight about the circumstances that might make a young kid join a gang. It is about the combination of missed opportunities, bad luck and poor choices. The book explores this dichotomy of circumstance versus choice really, really well – this is in fact the theme of the book: the knife as an easy choice but the hope for change (like a butterfly) is always present.
And that’s the core of Azael’s beautifully portrayed journey. The early death of his mother, his father’s extradition back to El Salvador leaving Azael , his brother Eddie and their sister Regina to fend for themselves as they slip through the cracks of the social system. His decision to leave school, his artistic tendencies, his love for his girlfriend Becca (and his promise to her to leave gang-life) and his family are all part of his heart-wrenching story. His voice sounded very genuine to me and although I flinched at certain parts of his narrative – especially when referring to girls, for example – these were addressed by the narrative in a way that satisfied me not only in a meta-textual way (by making it plain that circumstance can, unfortunately dictate world-view) but also in-text by allowing the reader to connect with a different side of Azael as other sides of him are slowly unveiled. On the other side of the story, there is also Lexi and it is not until later in the book that we get to hear from her. Her story is equally powerful: her problematic relationship with her parents, her love and respect for her grandmother, the fucked-up choices she makes with regards to sex and drugs all provide a frank look at her own troubled life. Where and how their paths cross is the end-game of the story and best left to be discovered by each reader.
Ultimately, The Knife and the Butterfly is a raw, violent, unrestrained story of two kids in trouble. Borrowing its own metaphor, this book is both knife and butterfly: it cuts deep and it’s uncompromisingly graphic but also compassionate and hopeful.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Chapter 1: Now
I’m standing inches from a wall, staring at a half-finished piece. Even though I’m too close to read what it says, I know it’s my work. I run my hands over the black curves outlined in silver. I lean in and sniff. Nothing, not a whiff of fumes. When did I start this? It doesn’t matter; I’ll finish it now. I start to shake the can in my hand, but all I hear is a hollow rattle. I toss the can down and reach for another, then another. Empty. They’re all empty.
I wake up with that all over shitty feeling you get the day after a rumble. Head splitting, guts twisted. All that’s left of my dream is a memory of black and silver. I sit up, thinking about snatching the baggie from under the couch and going to the back lot for a joint before Pelón can bust my balls for smoking his weed.
Except then I realize I’m not at Pelón’s. I’m on this narrow cot with my legs all tangled up in a raggedy-ass blanket. It’s dark except for a fluorescent flicker from behind me. I get loose of the covers and take four steps one way before I’m up against another concrete wall. Six steps the other way, and I’m bumping into the shitter in the corner. There’s a sink right by it. No mirror. Drain bolted into the concrete floor. I can make out words scrawled in Sharpie on the wall to one side of the cot: WELCUM HOME FOOL. I turn around, already half-knowing what I’m going to see.
Bars. Through them, I take in the long row of cells just like this one. I’m in lock-up. Shit, juvie again? It’s only been four months since I got out of Houston Youth Village. Village, my ass.
I sit back down on the cot and try to push through the fog in my brain from the shit we smoked yesterday. Thing is, I’ve got no memory of getting brought in here. It’s like I want to replay that part, but my brain’s a jacked-up DVD player that skips back again and again to the same damn scene, the last thing I can remember right.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to drop by later today when we post a guest post from the author about the inspirations for writing this story (plus a chance to win a copy of the book).
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
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