Wednesday, October 21, 2015

#TBRChallenge Reading: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
My Categories: literary fiction, in translation
Wendy Crutcher's Category: paranormal or romantic suspense

The prologue of the book starts out with a bang and covers most of the salient features of the narrative. But this story is not in its broad strokes but in its details, the ones it carefully sets down on the pages and the ones it chooses to leave off.

This is how the narrator (whose name we never find out) describes herself and the person who's going to be central to her life and her life's journey around the Ring Road of Iceland.

"There we are, pressed against each other in the middle of the photograph. I've got my arm draped over his shoulder and he is holding onto me somewhere—lower, inevitably—a dark brown lock of hair dangles over my very pale forehead, and he smiles from ear to ear, clutching something in his outstretched clenched hand. His protruding ears sit low on his large head and his hearing aid, which seems unusually big and antiquated, looks like a receiver for picking up messages from outer space. Unnaturally magnified by the thick lenses of his spectacles, his eyes seem to almost fill the glass, giving him a slightly peculiar air."

Her divorce is the impetus for her journey eastwards—and a touch of melancholia.

"...who would miss me if I never resurface again? And also can a young woman drown, out of the blue, in her bath? Is it possible to die from an overdose of serenity in a bubble bath? Would he mourn me? Am I missing out on something?"

Despite her realistic opinion of her herself, she takes on the charge of her friend's four-year-old son Tumi when her friend's hospitalized with twins.

"Although I'm not a bad person, as such, I'm totally inept at looking after things or cultivating them."

Her approach to her journey is as minimalistic as possible, so much so that she leaves with her friend's four-year-old son without a mobile phone to back her up in an emergency. While her journey seems to be as much about the discovery of the sights along the road and insights about herself, there is a purpose to it: She's been awarded a summer cottage and she's asked for it to be delivered to her grandmother's village, where some of the happiest memories of her childhood lie.

"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."

As she and the boy Tumi journey along the Ring Road, she does end up with—what in another person would be significant events in the singular—a sanguine approach to a multitude of experiences: running down a goose, cooking it, killing a sheep, a car whose windshield has broken by said sheep, carrying bleeding carcasses in her front passenger seat, digging part of the road out after an avalanche, arriving at a farmhouse with a soaking wet sleeping bag and a wet and hungry child, sleeping with three men within 300 kilometers, living in the summer chalet without electricity in November with temperatures in 50s and pouring rain, getting a divorce, having said divorced husband pop up frequently to visit her and yearn for her, and so on.

The narrator does nothing in small measures, but her laissez-faire attitude, bordering on callous at times, allows her to handle these situations as they happen without getting herself into a tizzy or tantrum. In fact, her reactions to everything, including the child, are very much as an observer rather than a participant.

Her inability to take others' words to heart, be they complimentary or insulting, is a good quirk of her personality. In a humorous exchange, her husband is insulting her about her lack of sexual experience. Her reaction?

"I note that he's using the word vaster for the second time. If I were proofreading this, I would instinctively cross out the second occurrence, without necessarily pondering too much on the substance of the text."

While her husband is divorcing her, he tells her: "Having a child might have changed you, smoothed your edges a bit. But still, what kind of a mother would behave as you?".

Well, he is right. Tumi does change her, and for the better. She was too prickly to begin with and too selfish. He takes her out of herself. By being so little and disabled, he forces her to deal with him and consider him before herself at times. He is the making of her as a person.

"I feel such an overwhelming responsibility;, it's worse than being alone—I'm responsible for another person's happiness. I mustn't forget that mute children don't attract attention to themselves the same way other kids do and require another kid of care."


"Time passes slowly if you're traveling with a carsick child. But when you're sitting with your loved one in the car, twenty kilometers are like the flutter of a butterfly's wings on the wall, the buzz of a fly, the fraction of a moment, no time at all."

Her soul is finally connecting with another's.

That is, her soul is finally repaired from when another child had ripped it out. She was fifteen when from her hospital bed she gave up her newborn child to its adoptive parents.

"There is no way of discerning from the cry, as it is being carried away, whether it is a boy or a girl. The woman is from the east of the country, not very young. I only catch a brief glimpse of her and say nothing, buried under the pillow. I'm not sure the crying can be heard for long because the corridor stretches far away, the coffee percolator is brewing, and the singing of the plover can be heard through the window."


Bona Caballero said...

What an interesting book you've chosen this month!

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks, Bona. Hope you're planning on reading it as well.