With words like “zany,” “bizarre,” and “quirky” dotting the reviews that appear on the back cover of the book I chose for Iceland, I knew I was in for some fun. Butterflies in November, by Auđur Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon, turned out to be a wild ride.
The protagonist, whose name we never know, is a thirty-three-year-old woman who has been dumped by both her husband and her lover after first accidentally running over a goose, all on the same day. Also on that day, she goes to see a fortune teller, not because she believes in such things, but because her friend Auđur had made the appointment and paid for it, but was then unable to go herself. The fortune teller has some interesting predictions for the narrator.
“’It’s all threes here,’ she says, ‘three men in your life over a distance of 300 kilometres, three dead animals, three minor accidents or mishaps, although you aren’t necessarily directly involved in them, animals will be maimed, but the men and women will survive. However, it is clear that three animals will die before you meet the man of your life.’” She also advises the narrator to buy a lottery ticket.
Even before she purchases the lottery ticket the fortune teller has advised her to buy, the narrator receives a call about another lottery ticket that she had bought from the Association of the Deaf: she has won “a ready-made mobile summer bungalow with an American kitchen, deck and grill, that was built by deaf builders and can be taken apart and transported to any part of the country.” She decides she should take a journey.
Before she can leave, however, Auđur comes to visit her. Auđur is a single mother with a four-year-old son, Tumi, who is deaf, can’t speak well, wears very thick-lensed glasses, and has a large head on a small body. He has never known his father, and the twins that the six-months-pregnant Auđur is carrying will probably never know their father either. Auđur slips in the snow and injures herself right outside the narrator’s apartment, necessitating a trip to the hospital, where she is told she will have to stay until after the twins are born. She tasks the narrator with the job of taking care of Tumi until then.
The narrator doesn’t have children, doesn’t know how to relate to children, and really doesn’t want to be the caretaker for Tumi for the next three months. But she can’t tell Auđur no, — indeed, she never seems to be able to say no to anyone – so Tumi becomes her traveling companion. They stop to buy a lottery ticket – he picks the numbers – and they end up winning the grand prize. She has the mobile summer bungalow transported to the village where her grandparents used to live, and she and Tumi drive there, experiencing a variety of adventures on the way and after they arrive.
Essentially, Butterflies in November is the story of a woman’s self-discovery. At one point, she tells herself, “I could barely be happier because I am beginning to know who I am, I am beginning to be someone else, beginning to be me.” The book reminded me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, another novel with a quirky protagonist trying to find herself. I’ll definitely be taking a look at the other books this author has written.
Butterflies in November has a whole section in the back of the book devoted to descriptions and recipes of the food the characters eat throughout the novel, most of which are decidedly not vegan. I decided to try making the ginger cookies that were served during the Winter Festival and which are apparently a staple of Christmas baking in Iceland. Although the translator calls them “ginger cookies” in the body of the novel, the food section in the back calls them “pepper cookies,” presumably because they contain a small amount of black pepper. I found a nonvegan recipe for Icelandic pepper cookies at Allrecipes.com, and veganized it by using vegan margarine and an egg replacer instead of butter and eggs. My batter turned out to be too soft to roll out, so I just dropped it by spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. That means that while the cookies are very good, they aren’t very pretty. The taste of the pepper is masked by the copious amounts of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger called for in the recipe.
When the fortune teller in Butterflies in November is making predictions about the animals that will die before the narrator finds the man of her life, she says, “I do, however, see a large marine mammal on dry land.” Toward the end of the book, a dead pregnant whale is found beached after a storm. It seemed only fitting, then, that the one project from Iceland listed on the GlobalGiving website was an Earthwatch Institute program studying killer whales and their prey. According to the project description, “Scientists have very little information about the population or feeding patterns of killer whales in Iceland. As top predators, they can change the populations of prey species, which in turn affects the rest of the food chain. Conversely, dependence on a particular prey species, whose populations may fluctuate over time, can impact the killer whales’ survival. By collecting observational data and skin/blubber samples, scientists will be able to better understand and protect these killer whales.” More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/killer-whales-and-their-prey-in-iceland/.
NEXT STOP: INDIA
(Originally published on May 26, 2020.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.