Butterflies in November (Black Cat, 2014) is an Icelandic novel first published in 2004 but only recently translated into English.
What is this book about? A woman’s husband announces his desire to divorce him. She cooks a goose. She goes on a road trip with her friend’s child (for some reason). She meets some men. And, oh yes, she wins two lotteries.
This is one of those books where you are constantly waiting for something to happen. But instead the book plods along and then just sort of ends. There’s no climax or conclusion. Nothing’s really changed but you’re relieved it’s over.
Our heroine and narrator (I can’t recall that we’re ever told her name) is a translator with a gift for languages. She’s having an affair with a man she doesn’t care about much and so when he tells her they should stop, neither she nor the reader cares much. She goes home to her husband who announces his plan to leave her for his mistress, who is a few weeks away from having a baby. Again, our narrator doesn’t seem to care that much. At this point, the only character with a name is the mistress. Since the husband’s name is eventually revealed, I’m not sure why it had to take so long.
Here is where one of the major problems of the novel became apparent. Our narrator’s husband tells her that she is too unpredictable to be with, too independent, too secretive and free-spirited. However, this doesn’t fit with anything we’ve seen from her so far or, indeed, ever see from her. She seems entirely normal, if strangely unemotional when told her husband is leaving her for his pregnant mistress.
This scene is surrounded by our narrator hitting a goose with her car and then bringing it home to cook for dinner. I think this was supposed to show us how she’s different from other people but it read to me as less “oh so unpredictable” and more, she must have lived in extreme poverty at some point in her life.
Throughout the book there are disconnected memories of our narrator’s past. Her childhood, her young adulthood. Some hints at the secrets of her past. These never really go deep enough or intersect with her present and so although there were points where my interest was piqued, there’s no payoff.
From the divorce, the narrator wins two lotteries (cough, deus ex machina, couch) one of which is a summer cottage. Her best friend, pregnant with twins breaks her ankle and is put on bed rest and so the narrator takes charge of her five-year-old son who is nearly entirely deaf. She decides to take him on a road trip to see the summer cottage. His mother, over and over again, shows a shocking lack of concern over his well-being and seems only too happy to be rid of him. Fair enough, he’s nothing more than a prop throughout the book.
And so then they go on a road trip. It rains a lot. Our narrator meets three men, none of whom are given names because, sure, why bother naming any of your characters? Eventually, they reach the little town where the summer cottage is located. The end. Honestly, that’s about it.
I read this as an Advanced Reading Copy so I can hope that some of its issues were worked out before final copy. I did wonder if some of it was due to translation. I noticed several instances of repetition and awkward sentence structure. Over all though, the greatest problem was a sort of blandness to the writing (and to the characters) and I’m not sure that’s simply the fault of translation.
I did enjoy reading a book set in Iceland and the fact that the author kept the landscape very present in the plot. It created a sort of otherworldly aspect to their trip, though some of that may have stemmed from my own unfamiliarity with Iceland. I did find I was never sure whether it was dark or light in any given scene or if the excessive rain was normal for Iceland in November. But I can’t blame the book for my ignorance.
Everything else? Yeah, I blame the book.