An unlikely kinship develops in this strange Icelandic road trip novel.
Ólafsdóttir’s (The Greenhouse, 2011) narrator is an unnamed, 33-year-old translator who’s married with no kids and a lover. Clueless about her boyfriend, her husband cites her frequent absences and lack of interest in motherhood as the two main reasons he’s divorcing her. That and the fact that he’s expecting a child with another woman. As it happens, her lover also dumped her just hours before. “Destiny isn’t something to be trifled with,” she says; “in a single day I’ve lost my home and my neat little past.” Adding a touch of prophecy to the tale, she has her fortune told: “There’s a lottery prize here, money and a journey. I see a circular road, and I also see another ring that will fit on a finger, later. You’ll never be the same again.” She actually wins two lotteries (a mobile “bungalow” and millions of kronúr), and after a good friend who's pregnant with twins is put on bed rest with a broken ankle, she agrees to care for Tumi, her friend’s 4-year-old son, who's deaf and has poor eyesight. Ólafsdóttir’s measured, often lyrical prose adds tension to the plot's theatrics, as if life and fate are loud and humans must respond quickly to survive. Destination uncertain, the odd couple drives Iceland’s Ring Road, a desolate, unseasonably warm place (hence the butterflies of the title) peopled with rural folk who offer bursts of social commentary. Besides quick sex with a few men, life quiets down for the narrator after she and Tumi move into their countryside bungalow. Looking back while trying to move on, she does end up in love; it's something new, requiring immense risk. To end weirdly, Ólafsdóttir throws in 40 pages of recipes for things like Icelandic pancakes, sheep’s head jelly, undrinkable coffee and sour whale.
Thoughtful and fun, if somewhat baffling; a novel of surprising tension and tenderness.