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'The Butterfly Lampshade': Aimee Bender Reconsiders Childhood Transitions Through the Light of Magic In New Novel

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Mark Miller
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Aimee Bender

In "The Butterfly Lampshade," 8-year old Francie lives with a single mother who is mentally ill. On the night her mother has a particularly dramatic psychotic break, Francie is set upon a long journey of a kind of self-preservation that we come to understand only as confronts disturbing and confounding events.

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She believes that a butterfly has emerged from a butterfly lampshade. A beetle from a kid’s drawing emerges in three-dimensional real life. Roses from the pattern on a curtain can be picked up. Twenty years later, Francie is still trying to make sense of these incidents. Do they portend her own kind of break with reality and descent into mental illness. Do they make up part of her coping? Do they mean something else?

We spoke to author Aimee Bender about her latest novel, "The Butterfly Lampshade."

Highlights from the interview with Aimee Bender

On a brief synopsis of the novel
I guess what I would say is that the book is about a young woman named Francie who is about 27, 28-ish. And she's reconsidering a moment in her life, a kind of major transition where her mom had had a psychotic episode, and she went to live with her aunt and ended up staying with her aunt. So there was this time in her life... and she and her mother have a closeness, but it's also just a very complex situation...And she goes to live with her aunt and uncle and cousin. And she just decides at this moment to kind of take stock of that experience. So it's kind of a deep dive back into a particular transition. And in some ways I feel like the book is about a kind of close study of transition because something big changed in her life. And there are these strange incidents that happened at that time, some kind of supernatural moments. And there's also just the dislocated feeling of not quite knowing where your home is, and all these things are kind of under a microscope as she reconsiders this moment in her life.

On one of the ways vulnerability is represented in the novel
The [baby's] fontanelle in the book is kind of this vulnerability of, you know, anyone who's held a baby. It's so scary, right? You see the little heartbeat through the scalp of the baby. It's so vulnerable, but at the same time it reminds me, too, that it is also another blurred line between sort of mind and the world, but you have the brains sort of slightly exposed. These suggestions are so potent to [Francie] that she can't shake them.

On the surreal elements in the novel
I feel like the thing that I'll trust about an image is just if it feels right on the page and if I can sort of bear to reread it when I'm looking back over pages I've written, it shows very quickly what things have no charge to them. I think George Saunders says "charge" or "juice." I can't remember his word for it, but just that the images lines, words sort of come packed or not packed. And if they're not packed, they fall away. And I could feel that the butterfly and the beetle and the rose had this sort of resonance, but the meaning is less important to me actually. Like what I'm hoping that the reader will be interested in sort of dwelling on with me and with Francie, with these images, these traversing things, these objects that move from two dimensionality in the world of objects, into the world of life, but, but are dead. In these realms that Francie is moving between and that her mom is moving between and in this kind of blurry line between fantasy and reality, that there are some concrete examples and that they are ultimately not going to be fully explainable. And that's important to me. Like I just don't want to create an equation where a reader is like, "Aha! I will now check off the meaning box!" because I just want it to create some feeling, whatever that is, some experiential feeling. And that, I guess my hope is then to say, if, you know, if someone feels worried they're not "getting it" or that there's something to get, to instead redirect and say, you know, what does it make you think about? What did it make you feel? What might be a moment from your life where you felt something sort of traverse a boundary that didn't feel traversable?

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.