Welcome back to my summer reading challenge, Around Europe in 14 Books! One week, one European country, one book review.
This week, in my literary journey, I have moved from Ireland to Iceland. Funny how with just one letter change in the name, you get a totally different country.
The Icelandic novel I have read is Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. Check out my review after the jump and be sure not to miss last week’s review.
Read the previous post:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #2: Iceland
Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Original name: Rigning í nóvember (Icelandic)
Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translator: Brian FitzGibbon
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Edition: 2013, Kindle Edition
Pages: 304 (print)
Genre: women’s fiction, travel fiction
Location: Reykjavík and around the Ring Road, Iceland
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
After a day of being dumped – twice – and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. Instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend’s deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across Iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance. Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life’s mistakes.
The small nation of Iceland has been quite successful in the Euro 2016 football competition, having reached the quarter-finals. The small nation of Iceland also has a huge number of writers: one in 10 locals will publish a book.
Apparently, these two standalone facts are connected, according to a recent article from The Guardian, which states that Iceland’s success in the sports has shifted the spotlight upon the country’s literature and the possibility of translating more of its books into English.
As a reader interested in Nordic literature and as an aspiring visitor of Iceland, I’m more than happy to hear that. However, I want the readers to know that Icelandic literature – and all Nordic literature – is more than just crime and mystery books. It’s not only Arnaldur Indriðason.
The only Icelandic non-crime author that I know of, so far, is Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. This art history professor was introduced to English-speaking readers through the translation of The Greenhouse (Afleggjarinn, 2007) back in 2011. It had already been published as Rosa candida in France, where she has been quite successful.
I also read The Greenhouse first, and although my memory of the story is sketchy (it always is, for every book), I still remember the good vibes I felt after finishing it. It is with this fond recollection that I chose her second translated book, Butterflies in November (it was originally published in Iceland in 2004, much before The Greenhouse) for my reading challenge, expecting the same experience. Well, what I read was very similar: it’s about a grown-up with a particular expertise and a baggage full of past burdens, who needs to go on a physical journey of self-discovery, ending up with a child tagging along. Noticing such similarities between the two books amused me at first but later on, it made me question whether the author is capable of inventing new different characters or plots.
The experience of reading Butterflies in November was, sadly, not as good as I had hoped for. If you take a look at the first bunch of reviews on Goodreads, you’ll often see adjectives like ‘quirky’, ‘weird’ and ‘wacko’ to describe this novel. They’re quite right, but I don’t think this was a good kind of ‘quirky’.
The story opens with Chapter Zero describing a photograph of the main characters at a petrol station. In a few paragraphs, the author gives us a glimpse of what is going to happen later on in the novel, i.e. the protagonist’s road trip around the country. Chapter One goes back to the very beginning. The unnamed protagonist and narrator is a thirty-something woman who works as a proofreader and a translator (ah, my dream jobs!) and who has just run over a goose in her car. It doesn’t take her long to decide that she will make dinner out of the dead animal. By the time she manages to do that, though, she gets dumped by her lover, she visits a medium on her best friend’s insistence, and she gets dumped by her husband. In that order.
Both men accuse her of lack of communication; they simply cannot decipher what she’s thinking. Her actions are also questionable. Her husband says that she seems like she’s living in a novel and that she doesn’t speak for herself (her comeback is priceless: “At least I’m not Anna Karenina in a railway station.”). He also accuses her of acting childish when, at her age, she could have been a mother, like her peers. But our female protagonist doesn’t want to be a mother at all, and there perhaps lies one of the reasons for the failure of her marriage to her husband, who is off to live with his pregnant lover.
The lead character’s feelings are rather unclear, both to the readers and herself. It seems like she lives up in the clouds. After several chapters of wandering between her two men and moving out of the conjugal home, she decides that she needs to go on a long, indefinite holiday somewhere far away. Her plans change a little after she wins a summer chalet and gets to take care of her heavily pregnant best friend’s son, Tumi. Tumi is a four-year-old with hearing and sight problems. Yes, that’s it: the protagonist, who often thinks she mishears people and who seems to be already forgetting her husband’s face (there are such clues throughout all the book), is flanked by a deaf-mute kid wearing thick glasses.
So, off they go, on a summer road trip around the country (as off-season as the butterflies she sees and like my reading a November story in July). On the way, they encounter friendly farmers and petrol stations staff, hunters, an Estonian male choir, and foreign workers. And three men who have ‘close encounters’ with the female lead character. And more dead animals. The trip sounds like the best part of the book because thanks to it, the reader can discover something about Iceland. The descriptions of farm guesthouses, herds of sheep on a semi-deserted road, and black sand are enticing. But somehow, it seems like it goes nowhere, just as the Ring Road on which they drive. The long succession of chapters that describe the journey seems more like a series of weird frescoes – or photographs, just to mention the same device employed in Chapter Zero – which can stand alone (despite some of them being totally weird) but which can hardly be connected coherently to form a story. The thin thread that keeps these images together is the relationship of the woman with the child. Through him, she learns to be responsible for another human life.
One part of the narration that piqued my curiosity was the excerpts of the protagonist’s past, written in italics, which subtly uncover the reasons behind her aversion to children and motherhood. These are maybe the only serious parts among all the quirkiness of the novel. They reveal her past bit by bit and therefore the mystery kept me wanting more. However, in the end, there is no complete revelation or any particular outcome related to that past, just as there is no particular conclusion to the self-discovery journey. While it is evident that taking care of Tumi changed her in a way, I couldn’t understand if there was any real evolution in her. It seems like she just accepts that things happen to her, just like male lovers happen to fall in her lap as if she’s the female Don Juan. Her psyche, as much as the narration, still seemed fragmented to me in the end.
Perhaps something went lost in translation (it could be; many reviews have mentioned that the translation is bad); perhaps something went lost in cultural and literary differences. Or perhaps it was just meant to be like that. If that’s the case, well, it didn’t leave me much to appreciate. I would have liked more substance, either of a psychological growth of the lead character or purely in terms of the narrative.
If I had to recommend Ólafsdóttir (which I still do), I’d say go with The Greenhouse first. Some reviewers out there seem to prefer Butterflies in November, but I think the first translated book can be easily appreciated as the journey described in it seems more meaningful and it reads like a bildungsroman. Besides, it is less ‘quirky’. There is nothing bad with a book being quirky, I love it, but there has to be a limit if the quirkiness undermines the possibility of taking the story seriously. I think Butterflies in November just went beyond that limit.