Butterflies in November

Audur Ava Olafsdottir

Translated by Brian FitzGibbon

Published by Pushkin Press 7 November 2013

304pp, paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Siân Miles

This is the story of an Icelandic woman who, having been dumped twice in the same day by both husband and lover, decides to take a late vacation during which she hopes to sort herself out. Very soon afterwards, she wins a huge amount of money in a lottery, with the extra bonus of a bungalow thrown in, to be erected at any place of her choosing in the country. As companion, she agrees to take with her the deaf-mute young son of her best friend who is pregnant with girl twins and imminently to give birth. Butterflies in November is an account of the narrator’s journey to locate a site for this dwelling and its effects on both her and the boy. It is told in sixty-four chapters with an addendum of forty-seven recipes and a knitting pattern for baby-booties.

The narrator is an amiable, observant woman whose generosity of spirit and general loving-kindness towards all forms of life are remarkable. She has a highly developed sense of humour and an unusual capacity for tolerance, forgiveness and understanding. She makes few judgements, taking things as they come, with amused, genial surprise, and recording every last detail of her many and varied experiences.

There are gems of poignant perceptiveness in her account of human relations, particularly in the making and breaking of emotional bonds. As she lies down with her husband for the last time, after the announcement of his decision to leave:

‘I gently lift the quilt, as if uncovering a new-born child in a cradle to peep at its curled-up body and baby crochet socks. I place the palm of my hand flatly on his warm stomach. He heaves a faint sigh and turns over on his back, and then on his stomach again, exhaling heavily and producing a deep, faint sound, like the foghorn of a ship as it pulls out of harbour to sail off to another land.

And now, I commit him all to memory, since he is about to leave. I scan his throat, shoulder blades, back, ribs, buttocks, thighs, the crease of his knees, calves and the soles of his feet, all unbeknown to him, without waking him, secretly shifting my gaze from place to place, studying his body like a relief map ,exploring him, surveying him, from vertebra to vertebra, recording everything I see, capturing him in the minutest detail, storing every single hair of his body, so that I will be able to conjure them up at will again… ‘

The film rights to this publication have been sold and an unusual road-movie with international cast is planned. The French critics have taken it to their hearts – ‘Perfect. Fascinating and moving,’ say Elle and the Nouvel Observateur etc – and there is no doubting the author’s sincerity, good intentions and impeccable moral provenance. She warns of the dangers to come in ignoring signs of global warming and describes convincingly, as she travels through it, the rising tide of flood water gradually swamping parts of her native Norseland.

The narrator takes exquisite care of her young charge, lavishing on him all the attentions she would on any son of her own, should one appear. He bonds with her and they have a sometimes terrifying, sometimes hilariously joyful time together. She teaches him all she knows and he in turn teaches her everything he has gleaned in his brief yet eventful life. They make a charming couple. What’s not to like?

Don’t start me.

Into this sub-arctic Moominland of animals, human and otherwise, whose zoological cast of thousands includes abandoned goldfish, a roadkill goose and later ditto unwary sheep, a needy falcon, countless slavering dogs, a sickening kitten is finally introduced as warm piece de resistance. The plot is a cat’s cradle of tangled yarns through which this reader, affected badly by the contagion of mixed metaphor, waded as through armpit-high icy water.

A welter of largely undifferentiated information is offered, each fragment of which piles absurdity on adventitious absurdity until the whole disappears under a morass of amorphous and unsifted material. Apart from the continued journey itself, there is little sign of structure or relief. One is reminded of Tennyson’s ‘On, on! To go back were to lose all’, and the blind Victorian faith in endurance itself. This may be unconsciously appropriate for a saga set on the endless Ring Road of the far North but not many read on simply to endure the experience of others, and the experience in this instance is both uninstructive and grimly tedious.

There is a dangerous tendency to cobble together bite-sized mouthfuls of data, like literary pick’n mix, in the forlorn hope or vain pretence of providing sustenance. The reader is offered a world-view of often nauseating fausse-naivete based on the understanding that motherhood or neo-maternity is the condition to which all women, certainly in this neo-novel, aspire. The attention required to absorb the contents of each chapter is minimal and how what-happens-next is never accompanied by an examination of why. Philosophical content, speculation or reflection appears subservient to action and the result is a vertiginous kaleidoscope of movement seemingly for its own sake alone.

The tale ends with the boy’s shedding and offering of a milk-tooth and the last page begins: ‘This recipe is designed for one baby. In the event of there being twins, two pairs will need to be knitted.’ 

It was at this point, as Dorothy Parker, the New Yorker’s Constant Reader, reviewing A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, wrote: ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up.’

Brian FitzGibbon’s English rendition is a model of brilliant translation.

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