Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir


The only reason I picked up this book was because my housemate left it in the bathroom. I flicked through a page, quite certain of it not being my thing and then I turned to the next page. And the next. I was completely hooked.

Butterflies in November is translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon. It’s a bizarre story of an unnamed woman, who gets dumped one day by both her lover and her husband (who happens to be having a child with another woman) – and she sets off on a road-trip with her best-friend’s deaf-mute son, Tumi, and three goldfish.

I don’t know anything about Icelandic culture, so I don’t know how accurately this book represents it. But some things definitely stick out as oddities, such as references to foreigners in an almost racist manner (particularly evident when Tumi’s Kindergarten teacher lumps a child with a Senegalese father in the same category as children with disabilities) and distinct gender biases (‘I grasp what lies at the core of the interplay of opposites in the relationship between men and women. Number one: I have to attract the fisherman’s attention; number two: win his admiration; number three: trigger off the desired response’).

Perhaps it is the oddities and a very quirky but clever narrator (she speaks eleven languages) which makes this story is a fun, interesting read. It also plays with words and language using the narrator’s occupation as a proof-reader and translator. The depth lies in the layers as the story continues, in the passages included in italics, when we catch a glimpse of the narrator’s past and learn that her childhood had its share of dark undercurrents. The story mirrors the narrator’s personality, in that at a first glance, it seems breezy and dippy, but turns out to have unexpected profundity.

It’s a woman’s journey to find herself, but what makes this book different from others of the same kind is that the woman in question is very matter-of-fact, and that she is making this journey with a four-year-old ‘unrelated child’. There is no intensity of Eat, Pray, Love here. We don’t see the narrator suffering from a heartbreak, wishing for her husband back or hoping to find solace in the arms of a new lover (though she has a few of those along the way, as men just seem to turn up on her path). She hopes to find the answers, though she doesn’t have clear questions, just by going on the trip. The added and sudden responsibility of a four-year-old child and the unexpected bond it creates between them gives her more answers, as well as more awareness and more time both by herself and with Tumi. As Olafsdottir writes, ‘There’s no hurry, plenty of time ahead and vast expanses of sand’.

Butterflies in November is a charming story, for those who enjoy good wordplay and slightly offbeat plots.

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