In Butterflies in November, tr. Brian FitzGibbon (2013. Original: Rigning í nóvember, 2004), you play with our sense of reality, bringing into light what is fundamentally odd in our day-to-day interactions. One strange scene follows another, the backgrounds move from glaciers to deserts to flooded areas, and bizarre coincidences happen here and there. Like in a dream we are about to wake up from and forget, we seem to be coming close to a meaning, only to lose it completely in the next sentence. Much like your characters, we are moving through a never-ending twilight zone.
The story centres on the narrator, an unnamed, thirty-three-year-old woman who works as proof-reader and translator. When the book opens, her lover has just dumped her; on the same day, she accidentally kills a goose and wins the lottery; and, later, her husband asks for a divorce. Both men complain that she refuses to commit to them, and they are more or less right.
Our narrator then sets off on a road trip around Iceland, for what she calls ‘a late summer holiday’ – except that summer is far gone, and we are already in November. She brings along her traveling companion, a four-year-old, deaf-mute boy, Tumi. He is the son of our narrator’s best friend, who is temporarily hospitalized.
The trip follows the Ring Road, which runs in circle around the island – very much like the narrator’s own mind and her circular style to telling the story, as if she were driving in circles (which, ultimately, she is), so as to come back to her roots, to the point where everything started: “You can stop almost anywhere and pick up the thread again, without having to look at a map. It makes life so much easier not to have to dread new choices at every crossroad.” When she comes back from the trip, she will be deeply changed – and yet, she will be ever more her own self.
Along the way, the woman and the boy will find other traveling companions – goldfish, a kitten, and potentially a dead sheep. They will run into a bunch of idiosyncratic characters, and strange things will happen: a flooding, men appearing in the middle of nowhere, ghost stories, sex on lava fields.
The narrative is fragmented, interspersed with italicized sections full of flashbacks and flashforwards. It reads as if the narrator wanted to confess something but lacked the necessary clarity of thought to do so. Her meandering narrative mirrors her mind, where mundane events acquire a dreamlike quality. To make matters stranger, at the end of the book, we have a list of recipes mentioned in the novel, as well as a very confusing knitting pattern. We cannot help but to have the feeling that we were not supposed to arrive anywhere, and that the journey was to be very odd all the way long.
The writing style is detached, melancholic, and yet deliciously humorous. In fact, much of the book’s twisted sense of humour comes from the protagonist’s aloofness, and the novel’s strong sense of disconnection mirrors her own detachment from the world around her. Many scenes are made odd by the fact that we feel there must be something missing: as if we were reading a long dialogue from which some parts had been randomly excluded, leaving us nothing with which to bridge the gaps except the wildest piece of imagination. Under the book’s all-pervading melancholy, we feel a strong current of dry humour: somehow, you manage to extract good laughs from your character’s dramas and contradictions.
Both the woman and the boy are self-contained in their own universes – in a way, they are like small islands within the island they are traveling through. Occasionally, they even manage to touch each other – only to drift apart again, as if moving in circles, in a puzzling, beautiful flight: like the butterflies that keep appearing and disappearing in the most unexpected scenes, and in the strangest places.
We normally sit face to face to feel each other’s proximity, but we now sit at the far extremities, each occupying their own end, since I’ve extended the table by two leaves, both because we’re separating and also because it gives the occasion a festive air. There is a huge gap between us, the vast distance between conciliation and separation. – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November
A relationship to me is all about the right body and the right smell, the home is a shell for the body, not a place for exchanging existential views and having discussions. – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November
Since the same word could mean two things, two individuals could be both right and wrong, simultaneously on the same subject; that is something I learnt when I was barely seven years old. – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November
Some people never lose themselves in nature, only in cities, and others only abroad. But still, most big cities are built in the same way. Some people get lost no matter where they are, and remain more or less lost for the whole of their lives. – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November
It is precisely at that moment that it first dawns on me that I am a woman caught in a finely interwoven pattern of feelings and time, that there are many things going on simultaneously that have a significance to my life, that events don’t just simply occur in a linear sequence, but on several planes of thought, dreams and feelings at the same time, that there is a moment at the heart of every moment. It is only much later that a thread through the turmoil that has occurred will emerge. It is precisely in this manner that the destinies of a woman and a beast can intersect. – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Butterflies in November
About the book
- Pushkin Press, 2013, tr. Brian FitzGibbon, 296 p. Goodreads
- Original title: Rigning í nóvember
- First published: 2004
- My rating: 4 stars