Monday, 12 January 2015

"Butterflies in November" by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir - January 2015

This was yet another free bookset we won from The Reading Agency:

We had mixed reactions to reading this novel! It was hard to get into it for some members of the group. The characters (especially the narrator, she's never named) react in such an unemotional, detached, slightly off-topic way to each major event that happens, that it's difficult to form any emotional bond to them. We thought that they were all over the place, not reacting in any way that you would expect them to; therefore it was hard to start caring for them. Some of us felt that we were waiting for the action, or the emotional connection, to begin, only to find three quarters into the book that it never does. However, we had very positive reactions as well: the quirkiness of the characters' responses is intriguing, and does propel the story forward in unusual ways, it's just maybe not as successfully done as we would have liked! This might be due to the translation (or the fact that it is translated at all). Or is it an Icelandic thing? Members of the group who've been to Iceland definitely attested to a quirkiness of character, inspired by the quirkiness of landscape, light and dark, and isolation, perhaps! It's interesting that the jaggedness / dottiness / flitting about of the story and the characters' actions and reactions mimic the flight of a butterfly; butterflies pop up every once in a while throughout the story.

One thing that we all agreed on was that the landscape of Iceland is very richly and satisfyingly portrayed, even though the entire journey the protagonists undertake would, in fact, take place in utter darkness (a bit of poetic licence there, as admitted by the author herself in an interview); however, that didn't mar our enjoyment of the author's descriptions. We thought that the novel might be designed to give a snapshot of Iceland itself, rather than an individual character; both because we never learn the protagonist's name, and also because her actions are so off the well-trodden path, a bit like Iceland itself maybe. She's a bit icy, she's all about survival, practical and matter-of-fact, but a little bit lost in her own world as well. She has a fanciful counterpoint in Audur, her best friend (and pretty much the wackiest character in this book), maybe as a warm, chaotic, colourful energy to balance the heroine's slightly robotic demeanour. However, every person in the book acts so wackily, that we thought that if anybody's only information on Iceland was this novel, they'd get a very weird impression of its citizens!

We really appreciated the backstory in the novel; the dream-like memories and reflections that interject the plot, written in italics, reveal her having a son while she's a teenager, and having to give him up for adoption (we never find out how/why). She meets him later, during her road-trip, and she does want to know about him, but still reacts with her typical stone-cold manner; she's being told by the boy's father to let sleeping dogs lie, and we read no more about it.

Another wonderful thing was the character of Tumi, the partially deaf four-year-old that the narrator goes on her trip with, and their evolving relationship; we did enjoy him and her together. We also talked about feminism and male and female roles in the novel; how accepting the women seem to men's dominating and dependent behaviour throughout, and how it goes uncommented by everyone! A novel to stimulate a lot of debate, for sure.
By Cordula

One member of our group couldn't make it to the meeting, but emailed her comments to me. Here they are:

- Choosing the boy to have hearing and sight impediments and not be a "normal" boy was a very interesting concept given the minority of children being affected by both. It added dimensions to each part of the story that changed the focus completely, I felt it really opened up what can be a difficult and sensitive subject when it comes to writing about it and the author really conveyed this very well.

- The descriptions of Iceland were so vivid to me, having been there I could really imagine the roads as they drove across the vast expanses and the volcanic barren terrain, for those who haven't been some descriptions may have seemed quite uninteresting or unimaginative - but having been amongst it I could really feel it.

- I found the plot a bit wishy washy in places, it was obvious what they were doing, where they were going etc, but there was no big song or dance about anything that happened along the way - it was almost natural to have a bird of prey in a box as it was to hit a sheep, or buy chocolate or petrol, or win the lottery, or end a relationship. Maybe this was down to the translation, I felt it lacked highs and lows and emotions which I wanted to feel when reading the story and these things happening.

- The ending was a real disappointment to me, I felt we were mid novel and I wasn't prepared for it to be over. It did have me hooked and I wanted more from it, but I was left feeling confused and wondering. Maybe this was the aim, or maybe this was the translation I dont know but I felt we got the first half of the story and wanted the rest...maybe part two will come soon!

- Adding in some dimensions like the side track when hitting the sheep, the bird of prey being with the vet, never finding out her name (i dont think we did?) the choir following them around and the butterflies were all very quirky; they made no sense yet the story needed them and I found the author's imagination incredible and in the way they linked into the tale.

- This is exactly the sort of book I would choose to read, it made me laugh, question, made me re-read sections and challenged my thinking about a lot of subjects from winning the lottery, to random encounters, to eating roadkill - it successfully covered a lot of unusual thought provoking items.

- As I write about this I recall so many amusing parts of the story, but it left me with both a feeling of having read a wonderful book and frustration at not getting as much out of it as I would have liked.

December 2014 - "I Was Here" by Gayle Forman - blog post to come

We really enjoyed Gayle Forman's "I Was Here", a Young Adult novel about a 18-year old girl coping with the suicide of her best friend. Review to come soon!

This novel was given to us for free by The Reading Agency: