Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2019

Butterflies in November (2004), by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon

Butterflies in November has been on my TBR since it was longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  It was reviewed, albeit not very enthusiastically by some members of the Shadow Jury chaired by Stu from Winston’s Dad, yet other readers such as this one really liked it.

Labelled ‘quirky’, ‘funny and wistful’ and ‘darkly comic’ on the cover (whose artwork makes the book’s style even more obvious), Butterflies in November reminds me of Camus’ The Outsider.  (This might just be because I’m rereading Camus — in French — for book group with my French class.  More about that later).  Anyway, the nameless central character is similarly disengaged from life, offhand about most of the people she comes across, and observant about others without often saying what she thinks.

Her relationships are so pedestrian that it makes no difference to her whether they dump her, or not.  Her husband tells her, on the day of his departure, that he is tired of her erratic housekeeping — which made me think, as it would make any modern woman think, why since they are both working, is it her responsibility to have the dinner on the table as a sensible time? On the same day, her lover dumps her (just before she dumps him) because she doesn’t think about him obsessively all day long — which makes me think that he needs to get a life (and obviously she thinks so too).

This woman loves her work: she speaks about a dozen languages, and she works as a translator.  One of the reasons she doesn’t want children is because they inhabit one’s consciousness so much that it might only be possible to develop the ability to read two pages of a book in a row before worrying about their welfare intrudes.  To her oh-so-needy husband she quotes from a manuscript that she once read:

“One of the things that characterises a bad relationship is when people start feeling an obligation to have a child together”

I have to confess that’s something I read somewhere, because we can’t experience everything in the first person.  Nevertheless, I throw in an extra bit of my own.

“But maybe we could adopt, in a few years time, a baby girl from China, for example, there are millions of surplus baby girls in China.”

“That’s exactly it, when you’re not talking like a self-help manual, you behave as if you were living in a novel, as if you weren’t even speaking for yourself, as if you weren’t there.” (p.35)

Either you appreciate  the satiric allusion to China’s unwanted girls, or you don’t.  I liked it, and I really enjoyed this book and its bizarre happenings.

The title is, IMO, just perfect.  It’s a metaphor for discovering beautiful unexpected joys in the depths of a dark and rainy Nordic winter.  And that is what happens to our heroine.  Without the novel ever being twee, she discovers happiness in the simple things.   The unwanted husband moves out to be with his pregnant lover while she unexpectedly becomes carer to a four-year old deaf-mute boy whose pregnant mother (expecting twins) is in hospital with a broken ankle.  Two(!) chance lottery wins provide the Deus-ex-machina for a road trip around Iceland, and off they go, learning to communicate with each other and having bizarre experiences on the way.

One of the things I’ve noticed about most of the #WIT (Women in Translation) that I’ve read, is that they are almost universally writing about grim themes.  I can’t account for this: it might just be the books I’ve chosen, which is based on what I’ve heard about from my blogging friends.  But a lot of it is depressing reading.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I like authors who write about topics of importance, and sometimes, the way the world is, that is depressing, and justifiably so.

But it was really nice to read a light-hearted #WIT who made me laugh.  Heaven Ali liked it too:)

Other less enthusiastic reviews are at Grant’s 1st Reading, and at Goodreads.

Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Title: Butterflies in November (Rigning í nóvember)
Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014, first published 2013
ISBN: 9781782270133
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $19.99

Available from Fishpond: Butterflies in November




  1. I have a copy of this lurking on my Kindle. I can only assume I purchased it because of the shortlisting. I will look forward to reading it now thanks to your review.

    There’s a running joke in our book group that all literary fiction is depressing / dark and so we recently challenged ourselves to try to choose / discover more “uplifting” or “happy” reads… it’s been an interesting exercise.


    • Good luck with that!
      (There are some commercial fiction books actually marketed as UpLit, but I have found them rather sentimental.)


  2. I’m not convinced this is the cheerful read I could do with right now- but it does sound intriguing. I see I’m not alone in finding much fiction a bit depressing


    • Maybe what you need is a bracing walk along the coast to cheer you up? I walked the dog down to the beach yesterday and it felt wonderful…


      • Just back from a nice walk with the two bigger grandchildren by a tidal creek. Kids were romping in the low-tide mud like otters. Then to an old pub for a drink, sitting outside in balmy summer air. Lovely. Local dogs love it there; they know there are dog treats behind the bar…


        • That would be lovely… alas, the pub that’s nearest to me is no good for dogs at all. It has a patron who must live nearby and who has taken to smashing his bottle on the pavement where I walk my little dog.
          I really loathe people like that. We’re about to decriminalise drunkenness in our state whereas I’d like to lock ’em all up until they’re sober…


  3. Perhaps lit.fic. is depressing because the world is. I tried to think of an opposite example but I haven’t (yet) got anything newer than Pride & Prejudice.


    • What about Murnane?


      • To sidestep for a moment. Such is Life is lit.fic and amusing, because we share the author’s joy in language, so that brings me forward a century. Murnane is not depressing and nor (mostly) is Stead. I don’t think either sets out to amuse, though I guess we are wryly amused by young Murnane’s immaturity.


        • LOL Maybe we could work towards compiling a list of LitFic that defies the stereotype…


  4. I think I’d like this!


  5. Yes!


  6. Great review, I read this earlier this month and really enjoyed it. You’ve managed to pick out things I had forgotten about.


    • Thanks, I’ve added the link to your review too. #WIT Month does unearth treasures, doesn’t it:)


  7. […] with a mental illness: Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry and Butterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by […]


  8. […] Butterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon […]


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