A novel turning out to be trickier than expected is a pleasant thing to discover. The immediate descriptions of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November (Rigning í nóvember, 2004; tr. from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, 2013), the jacket copy, and a basic recounting of the plot — a young woman takes her friend’s son on a road trip at a pivotal moment in her life — create a sense of the straightforward and familiar. The impression is that the novel will have a traditional arc, ending on the promise of “self-discovery.” Instead, and much more intriguingly, the novel is ambiguous, drifting, and full of occurrences that are truly odd: at one point the unnamed narrator picks up a man who appears on the road in the middle of nowhere, listens to him tell stories of “departed souls, guardian spirits, premonitions,” then at night wanders off with him into lava fields make love. Strange scenes, coincidences, uncertain connections edge towards the truly bizarre, yet are presented with the same listless affect and detached realism the narrator lives under. The story’s direction remains uncertain, and this, combined with the way that male-female relationships are explored and challenged, makes Butterflies an entertaining and rewarding read.
Just as a road novel set in the American West conjures specific images, and with that, themes, a way of life, and meaning behind the travel, an Icelandic road novel opens its own world. Glaciers, lave fields, and black deserted expanses are beautiful, yet haunting and even threatening. In the long journey between gas stations, travelers are stranded. The only relief at a station is “hot dogs that have been simmering in the boiler since last weekend.” The island is dominated by a single road, the Ring Road, running a circle around the entire island. For the narrator Butterflies in November, this simplicity is necessary: “You can stop almost anywhere and pick up the thread again, without having to look at a map. It makes life so much easier not to have to dread new choices at every crossroad.”
Freshly divorced, she needs such a safeguard, not for fear of becoming physically lost, but of losing an essential part of herself, while still hoping that “when I eventually return I will have become a new and changed person.” The narrator is not weak, but her existence is tenuous; she is independent to the point of isolation while so susceptible to suggestions of others that their whims can hold more power than they intend. Yet when they push her to act as they want, she slips from their grasp. In this, her and her partner on the road trip, Tumi, are is perfectly suited. The son of the narrator’s closest friend, a deaf, nearly mute, and physically underdeveloped and sickly child, he too exists in a private world, and is comfortable with that, while also being a compassionate being seeking connection with others.
Subtle oddities, in occurrences and character’s behavior, are what give this novel its spirit. The first scenes of the novel involve the narrator gathering the goose she just hit and killed with her car, her lover ending their affair, visiting a psychic who predicts the events to come, her husband ending their marriage, and her cooking the goose for him as a loving, truly loving, goodbye dinner. At this point, we’re under forty pages in, and much of the tone is set. There’s a touch of the loosely mysterious happenings of Murakami, where each strange sight and moment hints at meaning without necessarily offering any, but Butterflies is fresher, given the female hero and the lack of touchstones as repetitive and obvious as Murakami’s.
That the narrator is a woman further distances Butterflies from Murakami. It’s gratifying to see a woman have a chance to be the supposedly cold, distant, unrelatable, or unlikeable character. She works as an editor and translator, necessarily obsessed with accuracy, and this carries on to how she speaks and interprets others. During the conversation that ends her marriage she “note[s] that he’s using the word vaster for the second time. If I were proof-reading this, I would instinctively cross out the second occurrence.” When her lover asks if she will leave her husband, she answers “No, that hasn’t entered my mind.” She understands the accuracy of the statement, but is detached from the impact. Her disconnect comes not only from a place of rigidity, but a flightiness, whimsy.
In the conversation framing their divorce, her ex-husband to-be complains that “dinner is never the same time… Then when I get home on Tuesday you’ve cooked a four-course meal on a total whim, a Christmas dinner in October.” The frustration is both is at a glance understandable, but comes from an entitled man, wanting his wife to suit his conception of a woman. She lets his attitude pervade her thoughts, letting him condescend to her and “teach” her how to tell time, “Because I’m a woman and he’s a man.” Though she remains wryly aware of his behavior as she sets off on her road trip—as he continues to hang around even after moving in with his new woman—part of her expects to come back as the “well-adjusted” woman he’d want. Though her only noted concession to changes that she will have long hair, like a woman. Her apathy towards what others want from her is too great for her to loose herself.
Male expectations for her often lead to them not being able to see her affection. They are in essence intimidated by her. They think she is the manic pixie dream girl and think they want that, but she is a human being in a practical world, whose dreams “pixie” eccentricities aren’t crafted to serve the men, so and instead challenge them. This conflict, push and pull, of man and woman is throughout Butterflies. The narrator encounters other men on the road, sleeping with a couple of them, turning from others. These men are compelled by her, by her reserved, floating sense of self, but most are also terrified, knowing that they will not possess her.
Much as her ex-husband judges her against the concept of woman, she sees men as a concept. She rarely uses her husbands name, nor her ex-lover’s, nor the men she meets along the road. Instead, the pronoun “he” encompasses all of them, and in moments it can be uncertain as to which she is referring. She is not dismissive of them, but she sees and moves through the world vaguely. Often she tells us something someone said, then admits that maybe they did not, she may have just heard it that way. Her own past seems uncertain to her. Italicized sections of recollections break up the linear narrative. They float like even she doesn’t know where they belong. They create questions, and answers can only be sought in scattered details. This all gives the sense that reality could slip for her, for us, but never quite goes that far.
She is almost unable to articulate her love. Her care for others is silent, controlled, protective, but it is present and it is deep. Her ex-husband believes she pays no attention to time, to their time together, yet she easily, privately, knows they have lived together for “four years and 288 days of cohabitation.” While he sleeps on their last night, she watches him, memorizing the details of his body. When she is asked to look after Tumi while his mother is in the hospital, she is practically indifferent, mostly doubly of her abilities, but accepts without hesitating. The two proceed to win two lotteries, one for money and the other for a house in her hometown, and their journey begins.
That the narrator finds a deep relationship with the child without becoming a surrogate mother, while also seeking a new male partner without seeing him a replacement for anything, is one of the successful tricks of feminism in Butterflies. She recognizes that by taking a child under her wing, she has a chance to act like a mother, to understand motherhood, and so to be more like the woman her ex-husband would expect. But like everything else that is part of a typical journey of self-discovery, she can’t be motivated to force the issue. Their relationship takes on some combination of mother-son, friend, and at times the slightest touch of lovers, though wholly asexual. The waypoints of a clichéd take on a woman becoming Woman are all there, but the narrator’s individual path, her ability to leave behind anything that does not suit her, and the mocking and chiding take on masculinity, make for a different story.
Butterflies in November weakens at times, but it is entertaining without being excessively light, or depending the utterly familiar. Instead it offers enough of the familiar to take a turn at complicating it. The listnessness of the narrator becomes the book’s at times, and her lively oddness a grating quirkiness, but Ólafsdóttir is able to righten that and FitzGibbon keeps the eccentricities of her prose from feeling forced, so that the unexpected weirdness is still more satisfying than anything expected. Like every other Icelandic work I’ve read, it is wryly funny: while on a farm, “[t]he girl of the house invites the boy to play with the kittens; they’re going to be drowned soon.” The humor often comes from a dry noting of a contradiction in tone or an absurdity, such as cucumber farmers who sells their cucumbers with inscribed messages. The ever-present potential for humor underlies the narrator’s mindset. Her humor is directed towards her life, her past, towards masculinity and femininity, towards the world: “This is pretty much the state God created me in thirty-three years ago, if one adds the swimsuit, sexual longings, life experience and obsessive memories.” This and in her sense of being detached, yet open, brings her and the reader not into a new life and identity for herself, but to the cusp of one.