Soon I’ll be buying two new down duvets at the Co-op, because it’s not proper for a thirty-three-year-old woman to be sharing a sleeping bag with an unrelated child, it’s simply not done. It shouldn’t be any bother to buy them because the glove compartment is crammed with notes, straight from the bank. No crime has been committed, though, unless it’s a crime to have slept with three men within a 300-kilometre stretch of the Ring Road…
Our unnamed narrator is a proof-reader, reviser of theses, articles, speeches, letters and obituaries as well as a translator working in eleven languages. We meet her having killed a goose after accidentally running over it in her car. She picks it up and takes it with her to serve up for her husband, although not before she pays a visit to her lover:
The faint October sun, which is sinking over the tip of Seltjarnarnes, filters through the semi-closed slats of the venetian blinds, corrugating our bodies in stripes, like two zebras meeting furtively by a pool of water.
When her lover asks her if she intends to divorce her husband and she says no, he finishes with her. Ironically, she returns home where her husband informs her he’s divorcing her, partly because she’s childish and unpredictable, partly because he’s been having an affair with a woman at work who’s seven months pregnant with his child. Events so far suggest that our narrator isn’t all that observant of the world around her.
Between leaving her lover’s apartment and returning home, our narrator visits a fortune-teller, an appointment that her friend Audur was unable to keep:
“To summarize it all,” she concludes in the manner of an experienced lecturer, “there is a journey here, money and love, even though you can expect some odd twists along the way.”
And there’s the plot of the novel in a nutshell. Two odd wins – one competition, one on the lottery – leave our narrator with a destination and the money to get there despite Iceland suffering the rainiest November on record – milder than Lisbon – and the butterflies, or at least a butterfly, remaining outside of their cocoons.
This should all suggest to you that Butterflies in November isn’t your usual narrative. There are a number of strange goings-on, people appearing at odd moments in odd places; it’s reminiscent of a number of Haruki Murakami’s novels in places. But it’s also about language and communication and the bond between a parent and child.
Audur, pregnant with twins, is admitted to hospital. She asks our narrator to look after her four-year-old, Tumi, who’s hearing-impaired and has a speech impediment. Although our narrator protests, including the reason that she ‘…won’t even be able to sleep with anyone’, she relents and takes him on her trip which makes for some interesting scenes.
There’s a point towards the end of the book where she takes Tumi to see a film. When it ends, he asks whether it was ‘for pretend’:
“No, the things that we experience and imagine are also real,” I say, and he knows exactly what I mean.
And so, as readers, do we.
The book ends with ‘Forty-Seven Cooking Recipes and One Knitting Recipe’ connected to the novel. These are not your straight-forward recipes, although many of them appear to be perfectly possible to follow. It seems more likely that they are there to blur the lines between the fictional world of the book and reality. After all, how many odd things occur in everyday life?
Butterflies in November is a quirky book with a dusting of magic realism. I really liked the relationship that developed between the narrator and Tumi throughout their road trip and the idea the novel leaves us with: that we should embrace the imaginative and unexpected in our lives.