Azael wakes up in a prison cell and has no idea how he got there nor why he’s there. It’s not the first time he’s ended up in prison either but it is the first time he can’t quite figure out what did him in. He remembers a fight between his gang, the MS13, faced off against the Crazy Crew, but he can’t help think this prison sentence feels wrong. He doesn’t get a phone call, and he isn’t getting news about his family. He’s also without a lawyer.
Things are even more complicated because Azael is forced to share a cell with Lexi, a white girl, with whom he has no interest. She’s not opening up, and he can’t help but wonder why she’s in prison and what she has to do with him.
The Knife and the Butterfly (TKTB) is Perez’s sophomore novel, and before delving into talking about what worked well in the story, I have to say I hope she continues writing the sorts of books she’s writing for a long time. This story, as well as her first What Can(‘t) Wait, feature Latino/a main characters and they’re both set in Houston. TKTB features a main character from El Salvador, and it’s a story not only about gang culture, but also about broken homes, poverty, and the challenges of being a minority. There aren’t a lot of stories tackling one — let alone all — of these issues, and these are the stories that when I read them, I know there is an eager audience for them. Never once do any of the issues come across as inauthentic or pandering. These aren’t issue-driven books but involve characters and situations that are relatable to audiences who often don’t have these sorts of stories written for them. Many times these stories are instead written at them.
TKTB is a character-driven story, rather than a plot driven one. It’s told through Azael’s eyes (and his name isn’t really Azael, it’s his street name — his real name is Martin, and understanding this distinction is crucial to understanding who he is) as he tries to put the pieces of the event that caused him to be sitting in a jail cell yet again. As he combs through his memories, we’re transported back through the events of the last few weeks and years of his life. Immediately, we know he comes from a troubled home. The only true family Azael’s had is his brother Eddie, and when he’s unable to to talk with Eddie about what happened and why he’s sitting in juvie, Azael begins to suspect something has really and truly gone wrong. He’s beginning to think maybe he’s lost his only family in whatever ensued.
While in his cell, Azael manages to convince one of the staff members to help him piece his story back together. In rummaging through his files, he stumbles upon a news article about the gang fight he vaguely remembers occurring, though much of the information about the whos and whats of the incident are redacted. What Azael realizes, though, is he has to figure out Lexi. Even though she is nothing like him and he has absolutely no interest in her, he has reason to believe that they wouldn’t be sharing a cell if there wasn’t a reason behind it. But as much as he observes her and as much as he tries to figure her out, he can’t.
Until he convinces his guard friend to take the journal she’s been writing in. That’s when he puts together the pieces of who, exactly, Lexi is.
As readers, we’re on the outside of who she is, as well. She’s not telling the story at all, and we never get her perspective until Azael gets ahold of her journal. Then we’re dropped right into her mind. Slowly, she reveals bits of her life, too. Lexi hasn’t had it easy; if anything, her life’s been as unstable as Azael’s, but in a number of different ways. She wasn’t involved in gang life at all, but she’d been shuffled around so much in her life, she never really had any support system nor role models nor the opportunity to truly succeed. Both the reader and Azael come to understand Lexi and we begin to sympathize with her. Because we’d only been in Azael’s head for so long, we’d only ever viewed Lexi the way he had, as a privileged white girl. But through her journal, we learn otherwise and we have to reassess our own assumptions about her. If you’re at this point and thinking that the story will turn into a romance, well, I’ll break the news: it doesn’t. Not a lick of romance in this book.
I can’t talk too much more about plot or character here, since it’d delve into spoiler territory, but I can say that I didn’t see how the two characters were connected through the length of the book. Not only that, but there’s a huge twist in the story that I didn’t see coming — and I credit Perez hugely for making it work out. I can usually put the pieces together quickly but this one didn’t do that to me, and I didn’t felt cheated or tricked, either. It was clever.
Because we’re exposed to both a variety of time periods in both Azael and Lexi’s lives, as well as a variety of mediums — the straight-forward narrative, the journal entries, news articles — there’s not a lag in the pacing. This is a relatively short book at just over 200 pages, and not a word nor a scene feels wasted. It’s edgy and it’s powerful, and it will appeal to reluctant readers. The obvious comparison for this book to me feels like Watt Key’s Dirt Road Home, but that may simply be because of the juvenile detention center setting (which will be enough comparison for many readers). To be fair, Perez’s story is more mature and treads territory geared toward older teen readers than Key’s story, but I think readers who want these types of stories won’t think twice about it, and readers who want stories about gang life will certainly want to pick this up. I don’t think there’s any doubt this book will have mega guy appeal. Azael’s voice is believable.
I’ll admit, I had a hard time reading this book because this story was not up my alley at all. In fact, I picked this book up right before heading to Dallas for ALA, but I didn’t read it on the airplane, nor while I had down time, nor even when I made it back home. I put it aside for a few weeks and came back to it with fresh eyes. This isn’t a knock on Perez’s writing nor story but rather the fact that I’m not the target audience of this book. But let me reiterate: there IS a target audience for this, and Perez does no disservice in writing a book that not only has this appeal, but it’s a story that’s also worth reading. This is the world many of the target readership may already be familiar with or one with which they’ve got fascination.
I’m a reader of author’s notes, but I know not everyone is. This is a book that reading the author’s note is worthwhile, but make sure you save it until you’ve finished the story at hand. Reading it beforehand may spoil the story’s twist.
Review copy received from the publisher. The Knife and the Butterfly is available now.