Butterflies in November
“Despite the constant rain, the black lava fields, black ocean, endless black sand, and the interminable twilight, this is not a dark novel.”
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” states one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing. Ólafsdóttir takes this advice perhaps a bit too far in her novel Butterflies in November, a beguiling road trip tale with elements of magical realism that is also a coming of age story about a woman in her early thirties.
As the story opens, the unnamed narrator is dumped by her husband and her lover and wins a 44-million krónur lottery, all in the same day. She then sets off on a trek to eastern Iceland for a “late-summer holiday.” In November.
Her unanticipated traveling companion is the four-year-old, deaf-mute son of her best friend (named Auđur), who is pregnant with twins and has been commanded to bed rest. The narrator has no children, intentionally. Although we learn through snippets of backstory, which Ólafsdóttir unspools in tantalizing morsels throughout the narrative that the narrator gave up a baby for adoption when she was 15.
These entries are sketchy and randomly interspersed with the narrator’s dreams and imaginings, and readers might well come away feeling that they’re missing bits, bits that they would almost certainly not have skipped.
Ólafsdóttir’s narrator believes herself unprepared and ill equipped to travel responsibly with a child. And she’s not far wrong. At times, the gnomic child, Tumi, appears to have a tighter grip on reality than the adult caring for him. But the narrator manages to get them both to their destination, more or less safely, acquiring a few additional travel companions (three goldfish, one kitten, and a dead sheep) along the way. They encounter a surreal cast of characters that include farmers growing cucumbers in unexpected places, an Estonian choir, and a falconer. It is nearly always dark, and always raining.
Water is a recurring theme in the novel. This November is unnaturally mild and wet, we are repeatedly reminded. Characters drink water, shower and bathe, take hot tubs, skate on thin ice, and bungee jump toward the sea. There are puddles, waterfalls, coves, beaches. The rivers in Iceland are rising; fields and roads and basements are flooding. Cliffs wash out. Houseplants, even silk ones, set forth new shoots. There is a sense of slow submersion.
Because Tumi sleepwalks, his mother has instructed the narrator “. . . not to sleep anywhere too close to the sea. Don’t go anywhere near water or snow with him.” A tall order in November in Iceland, where there is only one major road, and it follows the coastline. Often, too often, the boy slips away and the narrator, in a state of near panic (it’s not easy to locate a deaf child) finds him near, or in, water. These provide momentary frissons of narrative excitement and color in an otherwise monochromatic landscape.
Despite the constant rain, the black lava fields, black ocean, endless black sand, and the interminable twilight, this is not a dark novel. Ólafsdóttir’s pithy commentary on marriage: “Living with you is like being stuck in a misty swamp;” divorce: “. . . it’s underwear that people renew first after a divorce;” teens: “If they make their beds, they feel like they’ve done enough housework for a whole month;” and women who sleep with your husband: “. . . they phone you one day: ’He isn’t exactly the way I thought he’d be, sorry,’ and they even want to meet up with you in a café and form a book club,” make this an engaging and entertaining read.
At the end of the book, Ólafsdóttir includes forty recipes (a reference to Biblical floods?) that the narrator cooks, concocts, or mentions in the novel. But they come with a warning, “. . . some of the descriptions of the dishes may be too elusive to be interpreted with absolute precision or for any usable recipe to be drawn from them.” She might well have been referring to her novel.