Butterflies in November by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir (transl. Brian Fitzgibbon): An Icelandic tale with a touch of Murakami

Cover imageThis 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?

10 thoughts on “Butterflies in November by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir (transl. Brian Fitzgibbon): An Icelandic tale with a touch of Murakami

  1. Col

    Enjoyed your review. The book sounds intriguing – your line about rain, dead sheep, cucumber farms and Estonian choirs certainly gives me the impression that this is a book with a difference! I’ll add it to my list to look out for. On the country side of things, my book visits recently have ended up in Spain more often than usual so am going to keep that going by taking part in 2014 in a Spanish Lit challenge I read about somewhere. But I might stop off in Iceland in between for this!

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thank you, and it is a little out of the ordinary. Lots of enjoyable reading to be had in Spain, I would think. Hope you enjoy the diversion to Iceland if you do decide to take it.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I really enjoyed it, Claire, as you can probably tell! So many New York novels to read. That could keep you going for several years.

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  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Sounds very Murakamish, but also reminded me of my own childhood and all those late nights driving home with parents after dark in a horse truck and the number of collisions or near collisions with furry animals, the sheep being the only one we had to stop for and deal with. These events certainly spark the imagination and sound like this author has plenty of that!

    My literary travels were definitely Turkish this year, determined to read as much as I could in English after a 6 day visit to Istanbul and am happy to be rounding off the year with a newly translated piece of classic Turkish literature The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet HamdiTanpinar which will be published in English for the first time at the end of this year.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I think that’s the best kind of destination reading, Claire, before and after an actual visit. I hope you had a great trip.

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      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Isn’t it great, some of my best reading memories are those I read in situ or after experiencing another culture. I have yet to add Iceland to my list, but I can recommend that you consider adding Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby for something a little different with it’s own unique connection to Iceland.

        For a glimpse at my Turkey highlights and reading recommendations, follow this link Ottoman Distractions which is the first post with a few pics before my short series of reviews of Turkish lit.

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        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          Great pictures, and how lovely to get a recommendation from a Turkish bookseller. Glad to hear it turned out to be spot on too.

          Perhaps I need to amend my post – I read the Solnit back in May and had completely forgotten the Iceland link. Particularly ironic (or worrying) when you consider her subject matter! I’d even posted on it. Thanks for reminding me.

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          1. Claire 'Word by Word'

            Ha ha, LOL! Well, I admit when I think of Solnit’s book, the first thing I think of is apricots, but I was stretching my mind to come up with an Icelandic reference and remembered her work, but also partly because my Aunt is currently designing a TV series that is located there (as if in the Arctic), so Icelandic references in association with artists and design has been a bit of a theme for me this year. Watch out for the upcoming TV series Fortitude.

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