Reviews||

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

20th Jan 2014

★★★
Butterflies in November
First published in her native Iceland in 2004 but not available in English translation until last year, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s 'Butterflies in November' is a whimsical, feminist road trip novel.

Ólafsdóttir, an art history lecturer at the University of Iceland, has published three novels, most recently The Greenhouse, which won the DV Culture Award for Literature and an Icelandic women’s writing prize.

Butterflies in November won the City of Reykjavík Literary Award, and has already been a hit in continental Europe, especially in France. An English-language film with an international cast is currently in production.

The unnamed narrator of Butterflies in November is a translator based in Reykjavík. She is talented enough to proofread in eleven languages, but those communication skills do not seem to extend to her relationships; in the book’s first chapters her husband leaves her for his pregnant mistress, and her lover breaks things off too.

A fortune teller gives her hope that this time of upheaval will turn out well: “You’ll never be the same again, but [when] it’s all done, you’ll be standing with the light in your arms.”

But things will get much stranger – if not downright worse – before they get better, with the protagonist first running over a goose (which she promptly serves to her ex-husband as a farewell roast dinner) and then unexpectedly taking guardianship of a four-year-old boy.

When her best friend Auður (a single mother, now six months pregnant with twins) slips on an icy sidewalk and breaks her arm, it falls to the narrator to care for Auður’s deaf-mute son, Tumi.

Although the main character is an independent thirty-three-year-old woman with no children, nor any desire to become a mother, she still gamely steps in, whilst admitting to herself, “I sometimes have enough problems trying to express myself to people with perfectly good hearing and speech.”

Leaving behind her romantic troubles and boosted by not one but two lottery wins, the narrator and Tumi set off on a snowy voyage around Iceland’s Ring Road, with plenty of madcap adventures ahead – an encounter with songbird hunters and an Estonian choir, a stay on a cucumber farm, and lots more bizarre roadkill.Leaving behind her romantic troubles and boosted by not one but two lottery wins, the narrator and Tumi set off on a snowy voyage around Iceland’s Ring Road, with plenty of madcap adventures ahead – an encounter with songbird hunters and an Estonian choir, a stay on a cucumber farm, and lots more bizarre roadkill.

The subtle joke behind the novel’s format is that Iceland is a small country and this is a circular road – a metaphorical road to nowhere. Yet perhaps, as T.S. Eliot proposes in Little Gidding, the real journey is internal: “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Indeed, the protagonist recognises that this odyssey – this “long-overdue summer holiday in November” – is her chance to take stock of life, learning how to be self-sufficient and not rely on men (unless you count Tumi).

Ólafsdóttir has crafted a convincing psychological portrait; readers may not feel they fully understand this aloof and nameless character, but they will likely relate to her predicament nonetheless: “I am a woman caught in a finely interwoven pattern of feelings and time… events don’t just simply occur in a linear sequence.”

All the same, the plot is rather scattered and uneven, with uproarious mishaps followed by tedious passages, including the confusing italicised sections that give snippets of the narrator’s past. A strangely irrelevant (and indulgent) 35-page appendix of recipes may also put some readers off.

However, in this kooky fictional world where “nothing is as it should be any more,” where butterflies are still flying in November, the narrator’s tragicomic travels should still strike a chord.