I’m not taking much with me. The main thing is to hold onto as little of the old clutter as possible. It’s not that I’m fleeing anything, just exploring my most intimate and uncharted territories in a quest for fresh feelings in a new prefabricated summer cottage planted on the edge of a muddy ravine with my hearing and sight-impaired four-year-old travelling companion. The most important thing is to never look back, to only ever sleep once in the same bed and to use the rear-view mirror out of technical necessity and not to gaze into one’s own reflection. Then, when I eventually return, I will have become a new and changed person, by which time my hair will have grown down to my shoulders.
I can see why the reviewers quoted on the back of Butterflies in November use words like “zany,” “quirky,” and “whimsical” to describe it. I think, though, that they were settling for these terms because they couldn’t find quite the right way to describe the novel’s strange sensibility. They make it sound cute and lighthearted, which it is not, though it is certainly funny — but unexpectedly so, and also sometimes grimly so.
I can’t find quite the right words to describe Butterflies in November either. But I enjoyed it very much, partly because it kept taking me by surprise. Its story is simple in outline. Broken up with by both her husband and her lover, the narrator sets out on a road trip that is also a journey of self-discovery. Her unlikely companion is her best friend’s four-year-old son Tumi, who is in need of a care-taker because his mother Auður, pregnant with twins, has slipped on the ice while bringing food and comfort to the narrator after her break-up, and been hospitalized as a result. “I just don’t have that maternal gene,” protests the narrator when Auður asks her to look after Tumi. Her resistance to having children was in fact one factor in her husband’s departure. “The sight of a small child doesn’t trigger a wave of soft maternal feelings in me,” she explains to us;
All I get is that sour smell, imagining their endless tantrums, swollen gums, wet bibs, sticky cheeks, red chins, the cold dribble on their chins. . . . They need hot dogs and ice creams, after which they’re packed into the cars again, reeking of mustard, their faces plastered in chocolate. The parents look tired and don’t even talk to each other, don’t communicate, don’t notice the dwarf fireweed or glacier because of their carsick children. . . . If one really put one’s mind to it, it might be possible to develop the ability to read two pages of a book in a row. . . . No, it’s not my style.
“Mark my words,” says Auður, “he’ll change you.” And because Auður is her best friend and she can’t see a way to say no, she accepts the charge and sets off with Tumi, who wears a hearing aid and peers at the world through thick glasses. This odd couple heads out on Iceland’s Ring Road, ending up at the small town where the narrator’s grandparents once lived, where they stay for a while before eventually heading back to Reykjavik. Simple, as I said — but the story is constantly strange in development and detail, with elements and incidents that seem random and yet are somehow suggestive of greater meaning and purpose, to the narrative and perhaps to the narrator’s life.
What unifies the novel’s episodic parts is the narrator herself. She is conspicuous for her reticence (“you’re like a closed book,” says her husband, soon to be her ex-husband), and yet her memories are often heartbreakingly confessional and her observations combine revelation and insight: it’s how she talks about what happens that I liked, more than any particular event. About half way along their drive, for instance, she crashes into a sheep. (This is the second animal she has killed with her car since the book began: the first one was a goose that she went on to cook for Christmas dinner.) Mild weather has kept sheep out roaming later in the season than usual, and many times on the road she has had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting one, but then, “on the forty-first time, the inevitable happens” and she slams into one. “It is precisely at that moment,” she says,
that it first dawns on me that I am a woman caught in a finely interwoven pattern of feelings and time, that there are many things going on simultaneously that have a significance to my life, that events don’t just simply occur in a linear sequence, but on several planes of thought, dreams and feelings at the same time, that there is a moment at the heart of every moment. It is only much later that a thread through the turmoil that has occurred will emerge. It is precisely in this manner that the destinies of a woman and a beast can intersect. The woman is listening to a Spanish love lament and glances through the rear-view mirror to see how her deaf travelling companion is dealing with his chocolate milk and banana when, at that very same moment, a sheep decides to step onto the road in front of the car, or suddenly panics — how should I know what goes through the mind of a thoroughbred Icelandic sheep? Time is a movie in slow motion.
She’s unsentimental and often has a hint of acid in her tone. When her ex-husband shows a tendency to drop in to their home to pick up things he has “forgotten,” for instance, she wonders,
The question I am confronted with is this; for how long should deserting husbands be allowed to come back and take showers? What if he carries on like this, long into his new relationship? How would I explain these endless repeated clogs of hair in my shower to a new potential partner with perhaps a hairless chest?
She’s unapologetic about her own affairs, which seem incidental compared to her interest in freedom. “I’m not sure I want to be taken care of,” she tells Auður from her new home; “the men here are so considerate; they want to fuss over me.” When her ex-husband tracks her down there, already fretting under the cares of his new wife and child, he says, “The good thing about you is that you never placed any demands on me,” but she tells him to go home.
Her fundamental isolation remains, then, but Auður is right that Tumi changes her, just by being with her and thus forcing her to tend to his needs. The two of them are strangely suited, alike in their uncomfortable relationship with the world around them, and in their struggles to communicate with other people. There’s no dramatic rewriting of her place in the world — no epiphany, no moment in which she resolves that she’d rather be more intimately connected with it, or with others. Instead, she seems to become more at ease with herself, her idiosyncrasies complemented by Tumi’s affectionate clasp, both literal and metaphorical.
At the end of the novel, she has resolved to travel abroad, taking Tumi with her. “I don’t want to lose you,” says her local lover.” “I need to go on my own first,” she tells him, “then we can go somewhere together, if we still want to.” The novel ends with a suggestion of growth and change still to come, rather than an achieved conclusion.
The book isn’t over when the novel ends: the last 30-40 pages turned out to be recipes. That took me by surprise in two ways. First, as usual I’d been keeping an eye on how many pages remained, and so I didn’t realize the novel was ending until I saw that it was over. (This confusion was exacerbated by the inconclusive nature of the ending itself.) Second, I hadn’t thought it was a novel about food in any significant way, so I didn’t understand why the last stage was recipes. I’m still not sure, but I’m glad I didn’t skip this section, as it contains some of the book’s funniest moments as well as the indisputable claim “Tea can never be praised enough as an afternoon refreshment.” I’m taking to heart the author’s caution, though, that “certain of these dishes may work better on the page than on a plate,” and I think I won’t have a go at actually making any of them. Except maybe “Undrinkable Coffee,” and that will be purely by accident, honest.