Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was familiar to me from Butterflies in November (2013), a whimsical, feminist road trip novel I reviewed for For Books’ Sake. Dómhildur or “Dýja” is, like her grandaunt before her, a midwife – a word that was once voted Iceland’s most beautiful: ljósmóðir combines the words for light and mother, so it connotes “mother of light.” On the other side of the family, Dýja’s relatives are undertakers, a neat setup that sees her clan “handling people at their points of entry and exit.”

Along with her profession, Dýja inherited her great-aunt’s apartment, nine bottles of sherry, pen pal letters to a Welsh midwife and a box containing several discursive manuscripts of philosophical musings, one of them entitled Animal Life. In fragments from this book within the book, we see how her grandaunt recorded philosophical musings about coincidences and humanity in relation to other species, vacillating between the poetic and the scientific.

As Christmas – and an unprecedented storm prophesied by her meteorologist sister – approaches, Dýja starts to make the apartment less of a mausoleum and more her own home, trading lots of the fusty furniture for a colleague’s help with painting and decorating, and flirting with an Australian tourist who’s staying in the apartment upstairs. Outside of work she has never had much of a personal life, so she’s finally finding a better balance.

I really warmed to the grandaunt character and enjoyed the peppering of her aphorisms. As in novels like The Birth House and A Ghost in the Throat, it feels like this is a female wisdom, somewhat forbidden and witchy. The idea of it being passed down through the generations is appealing. We get less of a sense of Dýja overall, only late on finding that she has her own traumatic backstory. For a first-person narrator, she’s lacking the expected interiority. Mostly, we see her interactions with a random selection of minor characters such as an electrician whose wife is experiencing postpartum depression.

I felt there were a few too many disparate elements here, not all joined but just left on the page as a quirky smorgasbord. Still, it’s fun to try fiction in translation sometimes, especially when it’s of novella length. This also reminded me a bit of Weather and Brood.

Translated by Brian FitzGibbon. With thanks to Pushkin Press for my free copy for review.

I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Animal Life. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.

12 responses

  1. Well, titles by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir are available in our library system, but not this particular one. Maybe I’ll try one of the ones I can more easily find?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sure, if this sounds appealing that’s worth a try!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m reading this at the moment. It’s very different to Butterflies…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw you’re also on the blog tour 🙂 My memory of Butterflies is not strong after 9 years, so I only had my rating and FBS review extract to go on.


  3. I enjoyed both Butterflies and the very different Hotel Silence so will probably rear this one, too, although it does sound a little messy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found Butterflies scattered as well, so that may just show my taste.


  4. This just recently joined my TBR, and sounds well worth reading for the greataunt’s musings and the passing down of a kind of underground feminine wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are lovely elements, yes.


  5. I liked Butterflies and … goes to check … Miss Iceland (though sad cat bit in that one) so will definitely look out for this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know you like your Iceland material!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I couldn’t get through Butterflies and this sounds like it has the same problems (quirky and disconnected) so I’ll give it a miss!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely, those are issues again here.

      Liked by 1 person

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