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Butterflies in November, by Audur Ava Olafsdóttir, translated by Brian Fitzgibbon, Pushkin, RRP£12.99, 304 page
Here’s an Icelandic novel, translated into English, that has already been a hit in France (“enchanting and moving” says Paris Match) and is due to be made into a film with an international cast. Audur Ava Olafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November is an unusual book in almost every respect other than its plot, which starts in conventional fashion, with the unnamed 35-year-old narrator being dumped by her husband.
She’s clever – working as a freelance translator in 11 languages – and somewhat detached from everyday life. Even the milk in her fridge is several weeks out of date. When her husband confesses that a woman in his office is expecting his baby in eight weeks’ time, her response is: “‘Isn’t that a rather short pregnancy, like a guinea pig?’” It turns out that, being fantastically unobservant, she’s the last one to find out about the affair.
Newly single (dumped by her lover as well as her husband) we follow her over the course of several extraordinary weeks of an Icelandic winter, one where the weather is as topsy-turvy as our heroine’s life. It’s warmer than Lisbon in Reykjavik, there’s a butterfly in the kitchen (hence the title) and she wins two big lottery prizes. The first is from the Association for the Deaf: a ready-made, fully fitted mobile summer bungalow. Then there’s a massive cash win in a national lottery.
The winning numbers were chosen by Tumi, “a deaf four-year-old clairvoyant boy with poor eyesight and one leg three centimetres shorter than the other, which makes him limp when he is only wearing his socks.” His mother, Audur, is the narrator’s best friend; she is single and heavily pregnant with twins. After Audur has an accident our heroine agrees to take care of Tumi for several weeks, until the babies are born.
The pair take a trip round the circular Icelandic ring road, meeting along the way an Estonian choir who seem to pop up everywhere, a group of hunters in the fog, some goldfish and a dead sheep. It’s charmingly done – the narrator’s deadpan approach is complemented by Tumi’s eccentricities and they travel across extraordinary landscapes to the new mobile home, which has been placed in the village where the protagonist spent her childhood summers.
Butterflies in November is funny and wistful, but there’s a darker narrative just beneath the surface, expressed in short italicised passages throughout the book. These offer a tragic childhood explanation for the narrator’s fear and revulsion of children and motherhood: “I wasn’t made to be a mother, to bring up new humans, I haven’t the faintest clue about children, nor the skills required to rear them. The sight of a small child doesn’t trigger off a wave of soft maternal feelings in me. All I get is that sour smell, imagining their endless tantrums . . .” And she doesn’t like the lack of sex that seems to be a side-effect of pregnancy and motherhood: “it isn’t motherly warmth that men come looking for in me”.
Despite being accompanied by a four-year-old, our narrator finds that men do still come looking – plenty of them. The ex-husband and the ex-lover both pop up, as do random charmers along the road. She doesn’t seek out sex – it just seems to find her.
The men, though, are just another piece in the strange circular narrative of Olafsdóttir’s book. This confused translator – who depends so much on patterns of logical thought and language – finds that to move her life forward, she’s had to drive almost mindlessly in a circle, accompanied by a practically mute child with whom she forges a strong bond. What begins as a tragicomic, quirky tale develops into a very moving, layered and optimistic piece of writing: “I can’t quite decide whether to measure the distance in years or kilometres. There certainly seems to be enough space ahead of me and plenty of time, and ample time behind me too.”