Once, coming back from a university conference in Dublin, my friends and I got chatting to one of the other attendees about what he was writing his PhD on. He answered Picaresque novels and we all nodded sagely and said it sounded like a very interesting topic.
One of the three of us, I am afraid to tell you, was a fraud. The truth is, I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about! I thought he’d said picturesque not picaresque. You can see where I went wrong, right? But it sounded obscure enough to be a valid PhD topic to me, so I didn’t really think much more about it.
Interesting anecdote, I hear you say, but what does this have to do with Butterflies in November by Arđur Ava Ólafsdóttir ? Let me explain…
It later emerged that he wasn’t talking about novels with an affinity for long descriptive passages about scenery. Instead he was talking about a particular genre of novels which focus on the adventures or journey of a roguish hero, quite a differently thing really. Which is more or less how you could describe Butterflies in November, by Icelandic author Arđur Ava Ólasdóttir and is an emerging trend in Icelandic fiction.
Butterflies in November was originally published way back in 2004, in Icelandic, but thanks to the great people at Pushkin Press, it was finally translated into English in 2014. It’s had a huge success since then, and there are even rumours of a film – a sure sign of its popularity. However, I think a film adaptation might lose a lot of the subtlety that makes Butterflies in November a really good book. The thing that I enjoyed most about it was that it whispered when it could have yelled, and you just can’t capture that in a film.
This isn’t a book that has a rip-roaring, action-packed plot. Instead it’s almost a study in normality, the patterns that all of us follow day after day in our lives and the monotony that we accept as our due. Written from the perspective of a woman who has no interest in playing the game. One of the most interesting passages was when the narrator’s husband announces he’s leaving her. He’s frustrated because his wife refuses to take part in the rituals of daily life, the boring breakfast conversations, the decision whether to have the parents over for dinner etc. He’s having an affair, he tells her, but what does she expect when she is so uninterested in the world and their marriage?
I’m tempted to say this was a very profound moment in the book, but I can’t quite pin down what was precisely profound about it. You actually can’t pin down much in this book, which is at times a little frustrating. Ideas flit and fly through the pages, and things are hinted at but never fully explored.
Perhaps this is the most important thing about the book. For instance, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. This isn’t a terribly new idea but it’s one that hints at a deeper layer to Butterflies in November than expected. Other reviews I have read have suggested that she doesn’t introduce herself to the reader because she’s so scatter brained she forgets to, like a manic-pixie-girl in a film. But I think there’s something more deliberate to it. I think she doesn’t want to introduce herself.
Interlaced between the plot, which is set in the present day, are flashbacks, which at first seem to be as random as the narrator herself. However, as the book progresses they begin to build a picture of a momentous event in her past which she has been running away from her whole life, although we never fully understand what happened. As these passages started to unravel, I couldn’t help think that her detachment from daily life was more a result of tragedy that scatter-brained absent-mindedness.
There’s a lot I could say about this book. I haven’t even started talking about the journey, both physical and emotional, that the narrator undertakes. Or the beautiful relationship that begins to blossom between her and Tumi, the young boy she all but adopts (on which I could devote a whole post).
There is, additionally, some really beautiful prose book, which made me glad to be reading it just for the sake of appreciating the language. As well as an absorbing depiction of life in an Icelandic winter, which I was fascinated by. But somehow, what I took away from Butterflies in November was that it’s not always the things on the surface that are important but the secrets we keep from others. The things we don’t say but which are there in the background nonetheless. That’s what I think this book is really about. That’s why you should read it!
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