Book Review: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

“There’s a great freedom in not knowing exactly where you are heading, to surrender to the security of the Ring Road, where one point leads to another, and you always effortlessly end up back at square one again, almost without realizing it.”b-i-n

Butterflies in November is about a woman at a crossroads in her life, having split up with her husband and boyfriend at the same time. Through a series of strange circumstances she ends up with a new summerhouse, some extra money and the temporary care of the deaf and mute young son of a friend. Faced with all this, she decides to take her summer holiday even though it’s nearly November. The plan is to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road. Tourists who have also done this route will recognise some of challenges she comes across! Despite her initial panic at being saddled with this quite strange child, they soon develop their own routines and surprisingly muddle along quite well together on their journey.

There is no real ending to this story, it’s more of a snapshot in time of some lives that have come together and any number of things could happen next. In fact the last 40 or so pages of the book are a collection of recipes or thoughts on food that has been mentioned in the book. This section of the book feels very personal to the author and I’m guessing has been included to give some wider insight in to some of the things that have happened. It’s a unique feature which I’ve never seen in a book before and is very funny in places – this idea would work well for a standalone book.

I preferred this book to her earlier work The Greenhouse (which was a big success) but again found it hard to have empathy with some of the characters in the book. They are quite mysterious and there are several male characters who are referred to only as “he” and very rarely by name.  I don’t think we ever find out the narrator’s name, but maybe that doesn’t matter? This can be a little confusing but presumably a deliberate technique of the author. The result is that somehow you don’t get attached to any of the characters and you feel you have been kept at a distance. That said, I thought the book was clever and unique in its style and it’s not one that is exactly like all the other books you have read. It is also quite funny in places and I laughed out loud a couple of times at some of the narrator’s cynicism.

This is probably more of a woman’s book than a man’s book, and as with most translated books, it would help you to understand a lot more of the references in the book if you already know something about Iceland.

Apparently the film rights have been bought and the film will be shot in English with an international cast.

Butterflies in November is out on 7 November in English translation. Thank you to Pushkin Press for my advance copy!

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

  1. Sounds funny and interesting, even if the distance of the characters you described could be something annoying. And how interesting are the facts about Noi the albino and the café in Þingeyri. I don’t know the movie and so also not that the building is featured in it. So I read about the movie now and it sounds very interesting to me. Have a nice day! 🙂

  2. Hmm, I’m a little leery of the planned movie with international cast… I remember how much I enjoyed the book, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and how much I hated the movie, which seemed so far removed from the emotion and grounding of the book — made so broadly accessible to audiences with no knowledge of Greenland that it became quite generic

      • I totally agree, Smilla’s Sense of Snow- the film totally failed to capture the magic of the book. I’d worry the same would happen with Butterflies in November, since it’s hardly a conventional plot anyway.

  3. I really enjoyed this book but agree that it was a little confusing in places. I like how you say it feels like a snapshot of time into someone’s life rather than a novel with a beginning and an end, that really captures it I think.

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