Ears on the Odyssey

Review: Butterfly Yellow

Gorgeous writing meets expert narration in this one of a kind story.  Listeners’ meet Hằng, a  teenaged Vietnam War refugee, searching to reconnect with her brother Lihn in rural Texas.  Along the way, Hằng meets LeeRoy, a chatty cowboy-in-training who slowly becomes enamored with Hằng.

Narrator Lulu Lam fully captures Hằng’s struggle and joy with learning English. Lại’s writing is dripping with poetic turns of phrase, imagery and wordplay that listening to it  in audio form is where I found this story truly shines. Lam’s Hằng is fully realized with blushes of shyness, stubbornness, and humor. The listener can hear the amazement and frustration in Hằng’s voice as she learns English and expresses herself in both languages. It is such a tricky thing to portray someone learning a new language that doesn’t sound babyish or mocking, and Lam does a nice job of it.  Lam’s flow and pacing wax and wane with the story’s leisurely pace at times though it is not dragging or slow.

What is most impactful is the way Lam retells Hằng’s memories of wartime trauma. Lam speaks them plainly and the memories are not overly dramatized or idealized. Her pace is steady and calm, but there is this mixed up sense that this is a memory for Hằng’s but also that it is also happening in the now. The listener thus must simply bear witness to Hằng’s brutal past.  

Lam further flexes her skills by portraying other characters’ in Vietnamese dialogue or with Vietnamese accents in English as well as Texas accents. Lam is able to do different ages, genders, and dialects in two languages. Hằng’s mother is distinct from her grandmother for example. Most notably Lam’s twang for LeeRoy is also as goofy and nerdy as his character.

With many parallels to today’s immigrant experience, listeners will discover moments of beauty, sorrow, and hope. By listening to this audio, you’ll come away with a greater appreciation of Lại’s manipulation of language in this perfect for audio production. 

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhhà Lại, narrated by LuLu Lam. 6 hours, 33 minutes. HarperAudio, 2019.

Note: This review was adapted from Lizzie Nolan’s original AudioFile review

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