Butterflies in November

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For my third Independent Foreign Fiction Prize read I’m leaving Japan behind and heading to Iceland, though, appropriately enough in the Year of Reading Women, it will be my third female writer. Butterflies in November is Audor Ava Olafsdottir’s second novel to be translated into English (both courtesy of Brian FitzGibbon), the first, The Greenhouse, having been published by Amazoncrossing a couple of years ago.

The narrator of Butterflies in November is a woman in her thirties who finds that her husband has decided to leave her and is expecting a child with another woman. Her own resistance to having children is cited as one reason for the marriage ending, though I suspect her seeming indifference to her husband’s departure may give us another clue. (She has already told her lover that she rarely thinks of him). When her husband complains:

“I feel I can’t reach you properly, you’re so lost in your own world, always thinking about something other than me.”

we feel that his words are probably accurate. Even the fact she continues to sleep with him suggests, not that she wishes to continue the relationship, but that she doesn’t care one way or the other.

A combination of her own good luck (winning two lotteries) and her friend, Audur’s, bad luck (pregnant with twins, she pulls a ligament slipping on the ice and has to be admitted to hospital) leads to her taking off around the Icelandic ring road with Audur’s deaf son, Tumi, in the passenger seat. This is, of course, a ‘voyage of discovery’, with much of that discovering consisting of sleeping with three men she meets along the way, rather like a porn version of A Christmas Carol. Ultimately the narrator and Tumi pitch up in a small village where the prefabricated holiday home she won in the first lottery has been constructed and attempt to settle there.

Although I was wary of a novel with a title like a self-help manual, Butterflies in November was initially a refreshing change after the plainness of Strange Weather in Tokyo, but, like an eccentric neighbour, it soon out stayed its welcome. There are indeed butterflies, and an unseasonal fly, though these largely seem to result in her husband receiving a smack in the face; what symbolic value they may contain was lost on me. (When a whale was later beached, I wondered if this was obligatory for Icelandic authors).
Brief childhood memories, which disappear later in the novel, added some depth to the character initially, but I found the narrator strangely bland despite the author’s best efforts to surround her with interesting characters and events. (As her husband say, “I get the strong feeling you’re holding onto seventy-five percent.”) She describes herself as a good skater, and seems to skate across the surface of her own life. Her relationship with Tumi, which I suspect is meant to have changed her in some way, seems to work largely because of the difficulties they have communicating. Despite the fortune teller’s claims (yes, there’s one of those as well):

“You’ll never be the same again, but it’s all done, you’ll be standing with the light in your arms.”

I didn’t believe it (and it wasn’t just the grammar).

I notice that the Guardian described the novel as both ‘whimsical’ and ‘kooky’; ‘quirky’ is another word that has been used. I’m afraid it too much of all three for me. Whether it makes the short list remains to be seen. A goose features prominently, and that didn’t do the winner any harm last year.


2 Responses to “Butterflies in November”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Ha love goose true I can’t see it short listing myself but one can never tell

  2. Butterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] less enthusiastic reviews are at Grant’s 1st Reading, and at […]

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