Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

First, apologies for two posts on the same day. I’m just catching up on reviews as Covid finally found me and left me a bit under the weather and unable to concentrate on very much. I don’t usually post back to back reviews, and it certainly won’t become a habit.


From winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Icelandic Literary Prize, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, comes a dazzling novel about a family of midwives set in the run-up to Christmas in Iceland

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 Reykjavík, 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.

With her singular warmth and humor, in Animal Life Ólafsdóttir gives us a beguiling novel that comes direct from the depths of an Icelandic winter, full of hope for spring.

My thoughts

I’ve had to think long and hard about this review because the book is so unusual and it took me a little while after I’d finished it to just mull on it and put the big picture together.

There didn’t seem to be a story, as such, as I was reading. Dómhildur seems to be relating her life throughout the book and there is no clear direction. She is the latest in a line of midwives in her family, doing what she has always done, which is what her grandaunt always did, and probably all the other midwives before them. She’s living in her grandaunt’s dark flat, among her grandaunt’s abundant belongings, and seems to have very little personality or life of her own.

During the course of the book we can see that Dómhildur has always lived in the shadow of the legend that was her grandaunt, and has either lacked the confidence or desire to step out and be her own person. Dómhildur begins trying to collate her grandaunt’s life work – a book consisting of decades worth of observations during her long midwifery career and applying her scientific knowledge and personal philosophising to them all. In essence, her own search for the Meaning of Life.

A few random happenings mean that Dómhildur suddenly has time on her hands and brings her into the orbit of new people who unexpectedly introduce small changes to her life which then begin to open her eyes to new possibilities.

It’s not a page turner in the sense of there being action on every page, but for me it was a page turner because of the beautiful language on each page which described the very ordinary life of an Icelandic midwife. The writing is lovely and drew me on. This is not a book for the impatient, but I think it is a book for those with a love of the written word and for those who don’t mind sitting and thinking about the book they have read in order to find the meaning that wasn’t so clear during the reading of it.

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