Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

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Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An unusual Icelandic adventure for a young woman and her best friend's disabled son; offers some kind of romance and some kind of humour, and a lot of some kind of quirk.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782270102

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'It's all threes here,' she says, 'three men in your life over a distance of 300 kilometres, three dead animals, three minor accidents or mishaps… animals will be maimed… it'll wet more than your ankles… it wouldn't be a bad idea to buy a lottery ticket'. And so an over-priced but miraculously accurate fortune-teller sets in process a narrative that provides for a very quirky read, with quite a bit of charm amongst the unusual. The lottery ticket and a loose end and a best friend stuck in hospital all conspire to make the narrator and said best friend's four-year-old son embark on a journey of discovery, all on the southern stretch of the ring road that encircles Iceland.

It's best not to approach this book as some kind of tourism by proxy, however – I can picture the very place they turn up in, on the SE corner, having spent the night in a place like it, but no names are given, no real features are identified. There's a matter-of-factness that comes from this book being purely immersed in Icelandic tropes – the dark black sand of the southern desert, the exceedingly short days, the accidental collisions with several kinds of animal…

It's also a bit amiss to think of this as a road movie in book form, for it's over a third of the way before the unlikely pair set out. The narrator is an intelligent person, her companion is half-blind, fully deaf, stunted, and has one leg an inch shorter than the other. Even though she has no children nor has ever had any truck with them they bond, and hit the road. She also bonds with other characters – witness the three men the prediction spoke of, although the book doesn't overtly refer back to that or test its truth at any points. There are also oblique references backwards in italicised memories that are a little unresolved.

The merits of the book are quiet ones, and possibly a little harder to find the less you know Iceland. There is a stab at a universal appeal, with the matter-of-fact side to domesticity, yet one that comes across in quite romantic terms. Our narrator has an awkward beginning to her story, losing her partner and lover to their own different ideas of the future on the same day, leaving her to carve hers out in a car with a near-stranger. But she's a grounded person, on the whole, even if others think of her as too random, erratic and quirky. She can fill us in on the home-life of two people as regards in-car catering and choices of wardrobe just as she can open up warmth in a relationship by describing the sleeping figures of her night-time companions.

Added to all the mundane details – again, though, nothing forces the mundane down our throats, everything here is a lot more gentle than I'm probably making it sound – the weather is doing bizarre things, and communities are either deliberately fragmenting or getting isolated, or being forcibly cut off. I'll take a punt at there being a lot more here that the native Icelander would recognise as odd and unusual, but I do think the bittersweet side to the novel, and the charming odd-ball family the car contains, successfully takes the story away from being too isolated, too insular, too Icelandic, and gives it some wider appeal.

I must thank the kind Pushkin Press people for my review copy.

The best book to evoke rural Iceland - albeit for entirely different purposes to those here - remains I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

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Buy Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir at Amazon.com.

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