Veteran midwife Dómhildur has just delivered her 1,922nd baby as a historic storm approaches Iceland at Christmastime. In Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir's oddly charming Animal Life, translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon, Dómhildur reflects on her midwifery career and that of her deceased grandaunt, whose antique-filled apartment she now inhabits. The novel takes its title from one of several unpublished manuscripts left behind by Dómhildur's grandaunt, which muse on birth, coincidences, the existence of humankind and light. (The Icelandic term for midwife, ljósmóðir, translates to "mother of light.")
Ólafsdóttir (Miss Iceland) creates a wry, likable protagonist in Dómhildur, relating incidents of birth (including stillbirth, postpartum depression and other challenges) from her matter-of-fact perspective. Although she tells herself she's happy living among her grandaunt's things, she begins to make some changes in the apartment, clearing out furniture and painting walls. Meanwhile, her meteorologist sister calls with frequent updates about the forecast and questions about their grandaunt's writings. Dómhildur digs deep into her grandaunt's papers, which includes a long correspondence with a fellow midwife in Wales, but the manuscripts defy her attempts to put them in order or analyze them logically. Dómhildur eventually accepts the manuscripts for what they are: the sharp-eyed, sometimes abstract observations of a woman both wise and practical, who saw a great deal of life in her decades as a midwife--and whose experiences resisted tidy conclusions.
Like the manuscripts themselves, Ólafsdóttir's novel wanders a bit, but Dómhildur is a thoughtful companion for readers who enjoy a meandering philosophical journey. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams