Rigning í nóvember, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, was published in Iceland in 2004. It was translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon in 2013 as Butterflies in November.
The narrator is a 33-year-old woman, living in Reykjavík. She is self-employed as a proofreader, editor, and translator. (She speaks eleven languages.) She runs her business the old-fashioned way, picking up and delivering projects at the clients’ homes.
One day, in late October, while out driving, she accidentally hits and kills a goose. On the same day, her boyfriend tells her that he doesn’t want to see her anymore.
On the same day, her best friend, Auður, a single mother who is six months pregnant, calls the narrator to tell her that she has an appointment with a fortune-teller that she can’t keep. Auður suggests that the narrator go to her appointment instead.
Still that same day, the narrator visits the fortune-teller who gives her cryptic forecasts – something about things happening in threes, a ring road, a ring on a finger, wetness, and a lottery ticket.
That same day, the narrator’s husband tells her they can’t go on with their marriage. Her behavior is too bizarre, and he can’t take it anymore. That, and his girlfriend is pregnant. The husband does accept the narrator’s offer of a goose dinner. The narrator loves to cook.
The narrator takes the day’s events in stride. She cooks the goose she killed. She and her husband discuss his plans like old friends. She helps him pack his books. She turns down her boyfriend’s request to get back together. (News travels fast in Reykjavík.)
The narrator decides it’s time for her to take a tropical vacation, even though the time for summer vacation is past.
She receives a phone call from the Association of the Deaf. She’d bought a winning lottery ticket from them, and has won first prize: a prefabricated summer bungalow, ready to be assembled wherever she’d like.
Auður slips on some ice and is taken to a hospital. Auður asks the narrator to keep her four year old son, Tumi, over the weekend. Tumi is deaf, with poor eyesight, and a sleepwalker. The narrator has no experience caring for children. She takes Tumi for the weekend, and does her best. She takes him grocery shopping, and watches what parents buy to figure out what to buy for a four-year-old. They stop into a video store to rent a DVD of The Lion King. She buys a lottery ticket and lets Tumi pick out the numbers.
There is only one winning ticket. Together, Tumi and the narrator have won 44 million krónur – the largest prize in the history of the Icelandic lottery.
In the hospital, Auður learns that she is having twins, and that her fall has complicated things. The narrator reluctantly agrees to keep Tumi for the next three months.
Her plan for a vacation in the tropics becomes a November road trip along Iceland’s National Highway No. 1 – the Ring Road – with a four-year-old boy, pet goldfish, and a glove compartment stuffed with thousand-krónur banknotes. Their destination is a small coastal village – a place from her past – where a prefabricated bungalow, assembled by the Association of the Deaf, awaits.
Butterflies in November is, at its heart, a fun, quirky road trip. The narrator and Tumi meet interesting characters along the way. They grow together and learn from each other. Unexpected events happen which seem ordinary, but are also as out of place as butterflies in November.
It’s a story about moving forward with your life while facing your past. It’s about gaining freedom and responsibility simultaneously.
It’s a humorous story, in a dark sort of way. There is a lot of wordplay and symbolism in this book which, I suspect, was even more clever in the original Icelandic. The dual-time-zone watch her husband gave her becomes a “two-timing watch”. A chessboard pattern on a kitchen floor becomes the scene of two people planning their moves toward each other. The spiderweb crack in the windshield becomes a metaphor for the intricate weave of events that brought her to the Ring Road at that very spot – just in time to hit a sheep and crack her windshield. There seems to be no wasted words in this book.
After the story is a section named Forty-Seven Cooking Recipes and One Knitting Recipe. It’s explained that the recipes are connected to the narrative of Butterflies in November. It also comes with a word of caution: The recipes are more or less fictitious.
I didn’t enjoy that last section much, but I loved the rest of Butterflies in November. I thought it was well-written, with believable characters – as quirky as they were. It was an emotionally moving novel. I feel that with all its intricacies, it would get better with repeated readings.
- A book with a month or day of the week in the title