Tag Archives: Iceland

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, tr. by Brian FitzGibbon

Butterflies in November is a quirky and darkly humorous novel narrated by a unnamed woman in her early thirties.  She has a talent for languages and earns a living as translator and proof-reader. The story opens in Reykjavik where our narrator is having quite an eventful day. Having being dumped by her lover she arrives home where her husband reveals he’s leaving her for another woman (a work colleague who happens to be pregnant with his baby).

Auður, a close friend of our narrator, persuades her to visit a medium/fortune-teller who predicts a journey ahead and a future involving money and love. After being told to buy lottery tickets, our narrator soon discovers that she has a double win on her hands, netting her a prefabricated summer bungalow coupled with a life-changing amount of money totalling several million kroner.

As a result of these events, she decides to restart her life by embarking on a road trip around Iceland with the intention of visiting the area she loved as a child, a location where her grandmother once lived. To complicate matters, though,Auður requires a huge favour of our protagonist. Just before the trip is due to commence, Auður, a single mother heavily pregnant with twins, twists her ankle. Complications with her pregnancy come to light and an extended stay in hospital is prescribed. She asks our narrator to look after Tumi, her four-year-old son who happens to be hearing-impaired, and seems keen for him to experience the trip. So, before she realises it, our narrator has agreed to look after Tumi and to take him with her on vacation…all this despite her apparent lack of both maternal instincts and previous experience of caring for a child.

These events form the first third of the book. The road trip itself plays out over the remainder of the novel as the couple encounter a variety of animals, birds and an Estonian choir who seem to crop up repeatedly. These sections of the novel remind me a little of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared with its cast of idiosyncratic characters and slightly surreal journey and I wonder if Butterflies might appeal to fans of this one.

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As the story unfolds, we also learn more about our narrator through occasional glimpses into her own childhood and teenager years and these snapshots provide hints and clues as to the nature of her somewhat detached demeanour. If anything, I would have liked further exploration of these elements as they point towards significant darkness and sadness in her past…and I couldn’t quite piece all of these fragments together to form a coherent picture. Some of these recollections are quite distinct, others more opaque:

It’s as if everything were filtered through a veil of white silk or film, giving it a soft and blurred appearance, like the fading pages of an old psalm book or an over-exposed photograph. I think I’m in a white knitted woollen sweater. My cousins are also dressed in white, strange as it may sound, white tuxedos, so removed from reality, so close to the memory. (Pushkin Press)

Butterflies in November is a slightly difficult novel to describe. Everything feels just a little off kilter. Peoples’ limbs and bodies can seem oddly out of proportion and characters (especially the protagonist’s husband) pop up and disappear again in the most unexpected places:

He has stood up and I realise how tall he is, he is literally towering over the table. He hands me a parcel wrapped in gilded paper, after fishing it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I finish the remains of two glasses before opening it, exhausting my annual ration of alcohol in a single day.

There’s a sense of time being stretched and then collapsed, distance too. Here are our narrator and Tumi in the Icelandic countryside:

I drag the little man with me onto the moor, moving swiftly in my leather boots, which sink into the soggy earth. After some initial effort to keep up with me he starts to drag his feet and falter, tripping over rocks, as I tow him over clusters of heather that scratch his calves, and stumbling against something every few metres, because the pile of stones that we are heading towards on this forsaken path always seems to remain at the same distance, at least another hundred years away.

It’s a novel that draws on the senses; one in which scents, smells and fabrics play a role as reminder of specific people or events. Perfumes, after-shaves and items of clothing appear as signifiers and there are other recurring motifs, too.

Darkly comic moments also feature, especially in the initial sections of the narrative, and these slightly surreal touches drew me into the opening scenes. The tone and mood shift somewhat as the trip unfolds and our narrator begins to develop a close and heartfelt bond with Tumi. We can see she’s undertaking and emotional journey as well as a physical one…and perhaps the butterfly (which makes a few fleeting appearances in the novel) is a metaphor for change and re-invention, signalling a transformation in her life as she learns to take more risks?

As Naomi (at The Writes of Women) mentions in her review, the novel ends with forty-seven rather unusual cooking recipes and one for knitting, although Ólafsdóttir accepts that some might be more suited to the page than the plate! And this addendum feels very much in tune with the off-beat, slightly surreal nature of the book.

In summary, I found Butterflies in November to be a quirky and enjoyable novel, although I preferred the first third of the book to the subsequent sections involving the road trip where the narrative just lost some of its momentum for me.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed Butterflies: Stu and Tony Malone – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (19th March 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.

Butterflies in November is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

An Announcement from the IFFP Shadow Group – Our Winner

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples.  A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow.  Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall.  After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs.  Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan.  Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop.  And the end result?  This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press) 

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This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books.  We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written.  Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

– Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.

– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.

– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!

– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year :)

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, tr. by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local pharmacist and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

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By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow seamlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had sufficient time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community. That said, of all the books longlisted for this year’s IFFP, The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Sorrow of Angels: Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Stu and Bellezza – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on David Hebblethwaite’s blog (13th April 2014) and David has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Final note: I’ve now read Heaven and Hell, the first book in this series, and as one might expect, the two books share the same shimmering prose and ethereal atmosphere. And having read the first volume, I gained so much more from my second reading of Sorrows. Both books are just wonderful.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: library copy.