Butterflies in November is a sweet, kooky novel. In it, the unnamed narrator, who can translate between Icelandic and “11 other languages” is rejected by her lover, divorced by her husband; she also wins two lotteries, and drives around Iceland’s ring road in November. This is a novel invested in the interplay between reading, living, and the accretion of experience. As the narrator is a translator, one of the major themes in the book is specificity of language, a theme which, with a little more levity of touch could have become luminous, but instead remains slightly heavy-handed.
The narrator’s sidekick, and main preoccupation on her journey around the ring road, is Tumi, “a deaf four-year-old clairvoyant boy with poor eyesight and one leg three centimetres shorter than the other, which makes him limp when he is only wearing his socks.” Tumi is, unfortunately, so loaded with symbolism that any actual personality he might possess is swamped by his use as a narrative device – he is always wandering off, his rescue then drawing the narrator away from yet another sub-par romantic entanglement. The narrator repeatedly asserts her unsuitability as a mother and yet dotes on Tumi: this is a novel which has more of a focus on a woman slowly coming round to a set of female “ideals” – a stable relationship and motherhood, than it is a novel about a woman whose desire to remain childless is real, or three-dimensional.
Indeed the novel falls down on its gender roles. The prose seems to elevate it above the standard chick-lit novel – although barely, which might be due to bad translation as much as anything. There are little luminous moments, where the narrator’s aphorisms approach a kind of wisdom: “I can’t quite decide whether to measure the distance in years or kilometres. There certainly seems to be enough space ahead of me and plenty of time, and ample time behind me too”. But generally, her characterisation is infused with all of the patronising conventions of “women’s fiction”. She is clever but ditzy and continually taken by surprise by the (ample) male interest she encounters.
She is frightened of motherhood: “I wasn’t made to be a mother, to bring up new humans, I haven’t the faintest clue about children, nor the skills required to rear them. The sight of a small child doesn’t trigger off a wave of soft maternal feelings in me. All I get is that sour smell, imagining their endless tantrums . . .” However, the entire novel centres around her love of a child. She is a free spirit, an adventurer, and yet she is constantly being saved: by her mother, by the various men she meets, by a fortune teller and by her ex-husband.
This is a disappointing novel if you’re looking for anything more than a cookie-cutter heroine. It has recipes at the back, which are charming, but it is not a book about food or eating, so they feel rather superfluous to the narrative. It is an easy read, and at times a pretty read, but for a book that has been translated into 27 languages and won a number of awards, it feels a little thin, missing an opportunity to alter for the better the traditional genre of female-led love stories that remain a major part of commercial literature.