The fact that it’s been rated one of the safest countries to visit may or may not throw Iceland to the top of your travel list. But either way, there’s no harm in exploring the Nordic island in words, first…
Butterflies In November – Audur Ava Olafsdottir, 2014
Nobody travels around Iceland in winter.
But our nameless narrator (a generally unflappable 33-year-old who can speak eleven languages and dislikes using front doors) needs to escape. She’s been dumped by her husband, given a holiday cabin on the far remote coast, and invited to look after a friend’s four-year-old deaf son: a coincidental storm of events that sends her off during one of the country’s quietest, bleakest months.
In moving away from Reykjavik, the woman and toddler create a common sign language from the silence in her car. And as the miles slush past, our narrator realizes that she’s not just escaping her latest mistakes, but trying to catch up with her first – a teenage pregnancy, a child given up years ago.
Is Iceland small enough to find what they’re looking for? Or does size (as Tumi, the patient child, demonstrates) have little to do with how lovable a place – or person – can be? Peace, adventure and pepper cookies await our sojourners at the end of the road…
“There’s nothing there to distract you, the back roads are only used to fetch milk and return any sheep… You can stop almost anywhere and pick up the thread again, without having to look at a map. It makes life so much easier not to have to dread new choices at every crossroad.”
Maybe it’s all that grey sky, but the narrator’s failure to name specific locations doesn’t deter from the story’s mapping legitimacy. There’s that cucumber farm they slept at one night; the isolated farm where she accidentally ran over the sheep; and all those little gas stations selling woolen sweaters and wood figurines.
Her descriptions along the Ring Road (Iceland’s circumnavigating highway) – “most of which was unpaved and literally wedged between the mountains and the coastline” – create a mental landscape of cozy farmhouses and a cuisine heavily influenced by salted fish and fermented vegetables.
With hospitable warmth written into every conversation, I begin to wonder – maybe Iceland in winter isn’t so bad?
Butterflies requires a bit of patience. There is (as on any proper journey) preparation that seems un-necessary, but will come in handy further into the story. So don’t make your decision in the first few chapters; you have to slog through whimsical flashbacks, confusing time sequences and relationship woes before the trip begins.
But once it does, all those beginning details make sense. Each page offers an unexpected human connection or landscape – making the travelers’ unnamed pit stops less important than the thoughts and emotions encountered in these places.
It’s difficult to make fiction read like a travel memoir, but Olafsdottir comes whimsically close enough. As a native author, her own understanding of Iceland infuses the book with all the reality it needs.
Have you read this book? What’s on your Iceland travel reading list?
Is Iceland too far away? Why not start closer to home, with a journey around North America…