Do you remember getting lost in the Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson who is unable to let go of hope to find his missing younger brother? Erlendur knows there is no chance of finding the boy who had disappeared during bitter winter many years ago. But he longs for some closure to quieten his own guilt. That’s what I kept thinking about: snowdrifts, cold, darkness, unpassable roads, while reading the moving and tender Animal Life in which death is also mentioned but in a different context: ‘In order to be able to die, a human first has to be born.’
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s latest book is definitely not an example in the crime fiction genre but a slow burner of an exploration of life and nature of humans. It tells a story of a midwife Dómhildur, with sixteen years on maternity ward behind her, as she delivers her 1,922nd baby and contemplates life and death in the days leading up to Christmas. This period often brings quietness or chaos and in her case these two are entwined. A terrible storm approaches Reykjavik and people are preparing for possible devastation. Dómhildur, forced to take unused holidays, decides to make some changes in her apartment, inherited from her grandaunt of the same name, renowned for her unconventional methods and down-to-earth logic, and discovers decades worth of letters and manuscripts hidden amongst her grandaunt’s clutter. While the weather gets worse, the mood in the real and symbolic four walls lifts. Questions and answers float around, and the archives are surprising.
The first Dómhildur embarked on a project to write about practices and skills of midwives whom she started interviewing during her summer holidays. What began as simple conversations in 1970, continued for another quarter of a century, and meant to become a published book on ‘living experiences of seven female midwives and one male midwife in the north-west of the country. the father of light Gísli Raymond Guðrúnarson, known as Nonni.’ It amazed the narrator: the old interviews, full of descriptions and original thoughts, ‘were mostly of my great-grandmother’s generation, born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and shared the common practice of travelling by foot or on horseback to attend to birthing women. A midwife could say she had seen other horizons, said one of the interviewees about her vocation.’ And here the connection to Erlendur comes: ‘Most of the accounts described the hardships of travelling in bad winter weather. The midwives were escorted by sturdy young men, who according to their accounts, often gave up due to fear of the dark or exhaustion, so the women would carry on alone, getting lost in blizzards, and having to grope their way, trying to find a familiar rock, sinking into the snow up to their waists, then climbing over or down a mountain pass. They waded across unbridged rivers, trudged over barriers of ice, barely crawled out of avalanches alive, and when they finally arrived at their destination and unwrapped all their shawls, the child was often already born, either dead or alive, because the weather doesn’t always bend to the requirements of a woman in need.’ Harsh nature, difficult living conditions, everyday hardships are common threads in the past; however, they can still be found in modern times in the country where darkness takes over the soul. The query about sunshine, light and warmth is never far: ‘Is there any light to be found in this country, is there any light in this world?’ Light is essential for Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir’s Karitas and for the ordinary Icelanders who in 2013 ‘voted for the most beautiful word in their language. They chose a nine-lettered one, the job title of a healthcare worker, the Icelandic term for midwife: ljósmóðir. In its reasoning, the jury stated that the word is a composite of the two most beautiful words: móðir (mother) and ljós (light).’ It is not a secret that metaphorically speaking ‘man grows in the dark like a potato’ and needs a lot of help and care to grow and develop after being born.
Light and darkness. Warmth and coldness. Past and present. Here I focused only on some of the themes in Animal Life which is so much richer, deeply moving, immersed in the Icelandic folklore and filled with delicate humour and touching recollections on human nature. Above all, it brings some joy and some calm and stops you to wonder how subtly and masterfully Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir composes her stylistic wordy world, and how beautifully and sensitively Brian FitzGibbon translated these thoughts into English. Let me leave you with this one, positive and wise:‘For even in the depths of an Icelandic winter, new life will find a way.’
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is a prize-winning novelist, playwright and poet. Auður Ava’s novels have been translated into over 25 languages, and they include Butterflies in November, Hotel Silence and Miss Iceland, also published by Pushkin Press. Hotel Silence won the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the Icelandic Literary Prize, and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by the booksellers in Iceland. Miss Iceland won the Prix Médicis Étranger and the Icelandic Booksellers Prize.
Brian FitzGibbon translates from Italian, French and Icelandic. Recent translations include Woman at 1000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason as well as Hotel Silence and Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir.
Thank you to Pushkin Press for the early copy of the book and for the invitation to join the blog tour.