Thursday, 20 March 2014

'Butterflies in November' by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 8)

After three preliminary wrap-up posts (here, here and here), a short piece comparing the IFFP and the BTBA, and a guest post from one of my fellow Shadow Panelists, it's finally time to get my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Journey for 2014 off to a proper start.  Today, we're heading off to Iceland, so buckle up - it might be a bit of a bumpy ride...

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir
Pushkin Press (translated by Brian FitzGibbon, PDF review copy from the publisher)
What's it all about?
Butterflies in November is a story about a winter holiday that doesn't quite go as planned.  A multilingual translator comes home from a final tryst with her lover, only to find out that her husband wants to divorce her - to move in with his pregnant lover...  She takes his decision surprisingly calmly and takes the opportunity to go off on a trip to clear her head, hoping to head overseas for some fun in the sun.

Before she even gets out of Reykjavik, however, the fates conspire to change her plans a little.  Firstly, her friend points her in the direction of a fortune teller, who has some surprising predictions for her.  Then, her numbers come up in the lottery, providing both the choice of her destination and the money to get there.  Finally, she is saddled with an unexpected travelling partner - with her friend confined to a hospital bed in preparation for the birth of twins, our heroine is forced to drag four-year-old Tumi along with her on a very special road trip...

The central character, whose name we never learn, is a fairly unusual person.  She's scatter-brained, yet linguistically talented, translating in and out of Icelandic from and into eleven foreign languages.  Perhaps because of this talent, she is emotionally distant, seemingly unable to connect with other people on a 'normal' level.  Even when her marriage is falling apart, she can't help detaching herself from the situation:
"Thank you," he says, "I'll never forget you."  This is the third time he's said this to me in as many days.  Someone ought to tell him he is starting to repeat himself.
p.71 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Perhaps, then, the point of the trip is to learn to reconnect with the people around her, and Tumi, another unusual character, is just the boy for the job.  His premature birth has left him with weak eyesight and severe hearing loss, and he's a child most people simply overlook and ignore.  However, the translator makes an effort to see into his private world, even going so far as to learn sign language (not a hard task for a hyperpolyglot...), and in doing so, she opens herself up to people in a way she hasn't for quite some time.

One of the novel's strengths is the insights it gives into Icelandic society, in particular the smothering nature of an island community, where it's hard not to bump into people on a regular basis.  Privacy seems not so much overrated asa foreign concept, with casual acquaintances knowing all about your life in advance (several of the translator's friends are aware of her divorce before she is...).  For someone who lives in a bookish world, this kind of community could easily come to feel more than a little claustrophobic - the trouble is that it's very hard to find a space outside that bubble.

The plot has more than a few similarities with the only other of Olafsdóttir's books available in English, The Greenhouse.  Both feature a protagonist who seeks distance to work out what's happening in their life, only to be unexpectedly landed with a child.  However, the tone used is very different; where The Greenhouse is a sweet tale, always threatening to bubble over into saccharine, Butterflies in November is much drier:
"Although I can't really boast of any extensive experience in this field, I know there is no correlation between sex and linguistics, I've learnt that much." (p.18)
Perhaps the dry tone merely covers up a deeper insecurity, but the translator deinitely seems to have a harder shell than most.

Having come to the end of the journey (on the iconic Icelandic ring road...), the reader sees the translator in the final pages on her way back to where she started.  Of course, there have been changes, and that is what the author seems to be implying; while we often appear to end up back at square one, everything we do in life has a small effect on us, whether we want it to or not.  Even a November holiday ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, not really.  It's a pleasant enough read, but even after eight books, it's not in my top six, and I'm sure it will continue to fall.  For a 250-page novel, it really takes a while to get going - in effect, we are left waiting 100 pages for the story to start, when the translator sets off on her holiday.

I also felt that the tone was a little weak as I was never quite sure if it was meant to be warm or biting, often falling between the two and not really satisfying anyone.  Another weak aspect was the characterisation, with the men the central character meets being very hard to distinguish (perhaps deliberately).  In a book where the writing was effective, but nothing special (despite a nice, clear English version from FitzGibbon), it really needed to provide the reader with a lot more.

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it.  There are some great books on the longlist, including a far superior Icelandic novel and a few great books from female writers - I really can't see the judges placing this above nine of the other books.  Unless, of course, this is the particular hobby horse of one of the judges, and they force it through.  Stranger things have happened (*cough* Bundu)...

So there you have it - we're off and running!  Funnily enough, my next post will continue the theme of travel as we spend a few hundred pages on the run from the authorities.  See you in China ;)