Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon
One of the highlights of my Nordic reading back at the beginning of the year was discovering new to me authors, of whom Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was one. Her first novel to be translated into English, Butterflies in November was quirky and delightful; an episodic road trip with added recipes. She’s written two more since then which are in my TBR, plus her new book, discussed here – all four translated by Brian Fitzgibbon.
Animal Life is another quirky and episodic novel revolving around Dómhildur, ‘Dýja’ for short, who is a midwife. A short prologue describes how Icelanders once voted the word midwife – ljósmóðir – ‘mother of light’ as their most beautiful. Dýja comes from a long line of midwives on one side of her family and undertakers on the other, handling both entries and exits! She has been a midwife for sixteen years now and approaching two thousand babies delivered. Dýja’s grandaunt worked in the same hospital, but many still remember her. Before her death, Dýja had been helping her grandaunt transcribe her diaries and interviews with many other midwives which she had compiled to make into a book. After her death, Dýja inherited her apartment and as the novel begins she hasn’t really changed it at all. She has also recently discovered another box full of letters and manuscripts, which she starts reading.
There is a bundle of letters to and from a Welsh midwife, her pen-friend for over forty years, many drafts of articles, and three manuscripts entitled: Animal Life; The Truth About Light; and Coincidence. Animal Life, subtitled, ‘Investigation into what the human species is capable of’ is the most finished and contains, as the others do too, philosophical musings on zoology, and how human babies are so incapable for so long etc. It had been submitted for publication, but there is a rejection letter in the box too.
Dýja tries to make sense of her grandaunt’s writings which seemingly jump between topics and trains of thought, from the philosophical and lyrical to the wise-woman lore contrasting with the scientific; it’s sometimes clear, other times obscure and elliptical. This process does, however, allow her to think about her own life too and devise her own way forward with friends’ help, to clear the flat of her grandaunt’s shadow, whilst acknowledging that debt, always egged on too by her sister, a meteorologist, who predicts that the incipient storm will be a bad one. Dýja’s life is dominated by beginnings and endings, she needs to find that middle.
There was one rather sublime moment of book serendipity for me reading this novel. I am currently also immersed in finishing reading Susan Cooper’s wonderful fantasy adventure series for older children known as The Dark is Rising Sequence for the first time – which features an epic dramatic battle between the Light and the Dark, so this quote particularly resonated: Dýja is yet to start her midwifery course, studying theology while accompanying her grandaunt on a trip to do an interview, and as we know her grandaunt is interested in the ‘truth about light’…
My aunt, on the other hand, was well prepared with scriptural quotations close at hand, and it was clear that she intended to discuss the struggle between light and darkness. She said she had loosely counted and concluded that light is mentioned in over three hundred passages in the bible, but that dark and darkness crop up in about sixty places. She spoke about the light of the world and the light of life and the true light.
Dýja will experience her own moment of light and dark serendipity near the end of the novel; well her grandaunt did urge her to believe in coincidence.
Changing tack back to midwifery, another anecdote of Dýja’s near the beginning of the book, tickled me. A new dad asks Dýja if she can adjust the birth time of their baby’s birth by three minutes. The baby was due on the 12th of the 12th month, but came a week late and at 12:09. Could she make it 12:12 instead to compensate?
This man is suggesting the child was unborn for the first three minutes of its life.
“I would really appreciate it,” he ends up saying.
“I might have looked at the clock wrong,” I say.
We really get a feel for the grandaunt particularly through her sayings, writings and little ways, she’s a wonderful character. Dýja is harder to gauge, but there is one almost throwaway sentence that makes you take a second look, and you realise that she has a real reason for her emotional paralysis. Again, the narrative is rather episodic in nature as Dýja encounters different people who pass through her life. Although there is an underlying story arc of sorts, it’s quite subtle. Ólafsdóttir does, however, capture the daily toil of midwives, both now and a couple of generations ago, and there is a quality that these women (and one man) have that is quite special. If you enjoy a descriptive novel with countless digressions but plenty of wisdom within its pages, then Animal Life should appeal.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Pushkin Press, flapped paperback original, 189 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)