Set in Zambia, the butterfly heart of Africa, this lyrical story tells of the fate of bright little Winifred when her uncle forces her into an arranged marriage with an old man from another village. Not only will this result in the end of her schooling and her freedom, but the end of her happy childhood. Told mainly through the eyes of her best friend, the observant and spirited Bul-Boo, there are also chapters by Ifwafwa, the snake man, to whom Bul-Boo turns for help, and by Winifred herself.
Character development is excellent throughout, from the main characters to those with a less significant role to play. The adult wisdom and considered pace of Ifwafwa contrast well with that of eager Bul-Boo, while the interaction between Bul-Boo and her dizzy twin sister Madillo is well-observed and finely-drawn. Sister Leonisa, the children’s teacher, is hilarious; in fact throughout the novel, Paula Leyden successfully uses opportunities for humour to lighten what might otherwise be an overly dark tale. The setting is vivid, with wonderful detail of life in rural Zambia, which is clearly familiar to her.
While the overall tone of the book is gentle, the author is not afraid to tackle what is a challenging and difficult subject: that of child marriages, a real feature of life in many parts of Africa, and is to be commended for doing so. The book is endorsed by Amnesty International as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them.
The conclusion—with just the right touch of mystery—brings the novel to a satisfying finale.