This is my fourth literary trip to Iceland this year – Hannah Kent’s impressive debut Burial Rites, Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea and Michel Rostain’s novel/memoir The Son all took me there in one way or another and now Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s quirky novel Butterflies in November. It opens with the killing of a goose. Our unnamed narrator, relieved to find it’s a bird rather than a child she’s run over, blithely picks up the goose, tosses it in the boot of her car and begins to plan an impromptu early Christmas feast in October. Calling at her lover’s on the way home she finds herself unceremoniously dumped just before she planned to dump him, then ditched a second time by her husband who tells her the colleague he had always professed to detest is pregnant with his child. Time for a change, thinks our narrator, fantasising about a holiday somewhere warm and soothing but soon finds her plans scuppered after her pregnant best friend Auđur is confined to bed for three months. Two lottery wins later – one a mobile home to be delivered to her old home town, the other an enormous amount of money – she sets off on the Ring Road (there’s only one in Iceland) with Auđur’s four-year-old in tow. Challenge enough for our determinedly childless narrator but Tumi is deaf and myopic, used to communicating in sign language. What follows is a very funny road novel which includes a great deal of rain, ex-lovers popping up unexpectedly, a dead sheep wrestled into the passenger seat, a night in a cucumber farmer’s guest house, an Estonian male choir with exotic dancers, random shootings and an ill-fated bungee jump. Punctuating the narrative are italicised passages in which small details of our narrator’s past leak out.
It’s an entertaining, slightly off the wall novel whose narrator put me in mind of a Murakami character with her eccentric, idiosyncratic approach to relationships and her breezy acceptance of the puzzling, occasionally downright weird things that happen to her. Ólafsdóttir skilfully develops the relationship between Tumi and the narrator until they become a closely knit team: he is endearing without being sickeningly cute while she is eccentric without being ridiculous. Food figures prominently throughout and there’s a set of recipes at the back quirkily in keeping with the rest of the novel ranging from Undrinkable Coffee and Sheep’s Head Jelly which begins ‘After torching the sheep’s heads…’ to the perfectly sensible Spaghetti Carbonara. An unexpected step too far for me but other readers may enjoy them.
I suspect that’s it for me and Iceland for a while although I do have a copy of Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, bought after reading Burial Rites back in August. Are there any literary destinations that kept cropping up for you this year?