Review: Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Published: December 2022
Pages: 192


In the days leading up to Christmas, Dómhildur delivers her 1,922nd baby. Beginnings and endings are her family trade; she comes from a long line of midwives on her mother’s side and a long line of undertakers on her father’s. She even lives in the apartment that she inherited from her grandaunt, a midwife with a unique reputation for her unconventional methods.

As a terrible storm races towards Reykjavik, Dómhildur discovers decades’ worth of letters and manuscripts hidden amongst her grandaunt’s clutter. Fielding calls from her anxious meteorologist sister and visits from her curious new neighbour, Dómhildur escapes into her grandaunt’s archive and discovers strange and beautiful reflections on birth, death and human nature.

For even in the depths of an Icelandic winter, new life will find a way.

My Thoughts…

This quiet little nordic novel was the perfect read to usher in the new year, with its wintery setting and philosophical musings on life and death, light and dark.

Dómhildur is a midwife, descending from a long line of midwives on her mother’s side and from undertakers on her father’s, so life and death are her daily bread. As a terrible storm approaches Reykjavik in the days leading up to Christmas, Dómhildur comes across an old box of letters and manuscripts in the flat she inherited from her grandaunt, who was also a midwife known for her unconventional methods. With Dómhildur, we slowly uncover her grandaunt’s collection of reflections on all stages of human life and nature and meet some of the people around her, each with their fears, quirks, and hopes.

The writing is gorgeous and lyrical but never heavy, even despite the sometimes peculiar sentence structure. This is a credit to both the author and the translator, as it couldn’t have been easy to translate this book! I really enjoyed getting lost in Dómhildur’s and her grandaunt’s musings. There are a lot of themes at play here, from the most obvious ones to subtler ones to ones that most likely would only emerge on a re-read. Life, death, light, dark, parenthood (but especially motherhood), what it means to be human and our relationship with nature all feature prominently. Still, there are many more besides and the more I think about it, the more I find.

What I struggled a bit with, especially at the beginning is the structure of this book. There isn’t a plot as such: it’s more a collection of events, like vignettes, that prompt further reflections or arise as memories from something Dómhildur’s grandaunt wrote. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but several times it felt disjointed and more than a bit chaotic. I’m not a huge fan of stream of consciousness and similar narrative modes so I had a hard time with this aspect, but if it doesn’t bother you then you might enjoy this even more than I did!

Despite that, I enjoyed the slower, more reflective pace that had been missing from some of my previous reads. I liked the writing and the characters and really appreciated how some of the heavier reflections were balanced with lighter moments brought about by some of the side characters; simple, ordinary exchanges that could easily be overlooked but immediately brought up a smile. It’s a short book, but it’s not a quick book: Animal Life asks, and deserves, that the reader takes their time with it, stopping to marvel at the miracle of life in all its forms. Definitely recommended to anyone looking for a thoughtful, meaningful read. I’ll be looking forward to checking out some of the author’s other works!

Rating: 4/5

Four butterflies to indicate rating.

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