Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon
My final read of #NordicFINDS is a quirky novel that slightly took me back to nearly the beginning of my project this year, for Butterflies in November has some similarities in its narrator with Bess in The Murder of Halland, except that this time there is no murder. At the beginnings of both novels, Bess and the unnamed narrator of Butterflies lose the men in their lives: Halland was murdered, Thorsstein dumps the other for his (pregenant) secretary. They both have a journey of discovery ahead, but while Bess gets to grips with the man who was her husband’s secret life, Butterflies‘ protagonist, freed, will go on a different trajectory.
This trajectory is laid out in the blurb, but also early on in the text – when her best friend Auður, who is also heavily pregnant, persuades her to use her already paid-for appointment with a clairvoyant. She goes, but remains to be convinced:
“… there’s a big boy here, an adolescent, a narrow fjord, black sand, dwarf fireweed, the mouth of a river, seals nearby.”
Another one of her pauses.
“There’s a lottery prize here, money and a journey. I see a circular road, and I also see another ring that will fit on a finger, later. You’ll never be the same again, but it’s all done, you’ll be standing with the light in your arms.”
Those were her words, to the letter, “with the light in my arms”, whatever that was supposed to mean.
“To summarize it all,” she concludes in the manner of an experienced lecturer, “there is a journey here, money and love, even though you can expect some odd twists along the way. But I can’t see which of these three man it will be.”
Basically – it all comes true! And there certainly are odd twists along the way. Two lottery wins will give her the break she needs with her old life. She plans to travel, but when Auður is confined to hospital until she gives birth, she needs someone to look after her deaf four-year-old son Tumi. Despite never have been interested in children, (one of the reasons her husband left) she agrees to look after him. Her plans to go beyond Iceland curtailed to look after Tumi, Auður agrees to let her take him with her on a road trip round Iceland’s ring road instead – even though its November.
Thus they set out on an adventure. Her past won’t quite leave her behind though. Her ex, who is finding that fatherhood and a demanding younger partner is hard work, is jealous of her new-found freedom and turns up. Her own love-life while married hadn’t been completely monogamous, she’d briefly had a lover, who turns up too. She fends both men off, will there be a third as the clairvoyant predicts?
She also has to learn how to communicate with Tumi, who is a very odd child, always disappearing but never going far. Having never known his father, he’s prone to clinging to the legs of any men who happen along saying, “Daddy?” The two form an unlikely pairing but she soon grows to love the boy.
Slightly episodic in nature, there is a continuity to their adventures linked by the road they’re travelling, and the sometimes unseasonal weather in which you can still find butterflies in November. The narrative veers from hilarious episodes to darker ones (there will be dead animals) via moments of ennui between them, however the overall feel is quirky and even upbeat.
The narrator is very dead-pan – some will find her hard to get along with, but I enjoyed her spikiness a lot (another similarity with Bess above). There are some great running jokes, often relating to her profession, she’s a translator speaking eleven languages (soon to be twelve as she begins to add signing), and she has a grammarian’s ear for internally correcting everyone. She’s a keen observer of folk, but doesn’t really care for most of them: Auður, Tumi and by extension her own mother are the exceptions.
What did take me by surprise is the appendix of 35 pages of “recipes” for all the food and drink consumed in the novel, in rough chronological order – this is whether they enjoyed it or not! From roadkill goose to undrinkable petrol station coffee, she explains how to make it in that dead-pan way. I was in two minds whether to bother reading these, in the end skimming through them – they’re not conventional recipes, there is a disclaimer should you try any of them! But there are some funny bits and droll comments.
I enjoyed this quirky novel, I liked the dead-pan narration in particular. I am keen to read more by this author.
Source: Own copy. Pushkin Press paperback, 296 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.