IN 2013, THE University of Iceland crowned ljósmóðir, a compound of ljós (light) and móðir (mother), the most beautiful word in the Icelandic language. The English word for ljósmóðir is midwife, and that most intimate occupation forms the core of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s latest novel, Animal Life, her seventh to be translated into English—this time, by Brian Fitzgibbon.
The premise: It’s late December in Reykjavík, and a massive storm is approaching. Dómhildur, known as Dýja, is an unmarried midwife using work to avoid celebrating Christmas with her undertaker parents and her meteorologist sister, who phones to nag about holiday plans and issue warnings about the weather. Resentments have accrued.
Dýja lives in a cluttered apartment inherited from her grandaunt Dómhildur, called Fífa, who was also a midwife. “We namesakes,” Fífa used to say to Dýja, making the two words into an embrace, a public marker of their special bond. Due to an inheritance snafu, Dýja’s apartment is jammed with doubles of everything—sofas, tables, plates—and Auður unfolds this theme of two stuffed into space for one in a series of potent metaphors. In the garden, an “old double-trunked maple,” is vulnerable to the coming storm.
As Dýja sifts through the charmingly unhinged detritus of her late grandaunt’s “archive,” she finds interviews with other midwives, diaries and correspondence, several unpublished manuscripts on subjects like the nature of light and the significance of coincidence, and news clippings about whales beaching themselves, unusual storms, strange lights in the sky. Dýja finds an account from a midwife about “conjoined twins who’d had a very difficult birth and both died.” The overall vibe of her papers is portentous, terse, and unsentimental, even in its rendering of the “miracle” of life. “Man grows in the dark like a potato,” Fífa writes. The archival voices (typically rendered in italics) are offbeat and deadpan, as in this scrap from a diary: “I wanted to travel and see the world. . . . I decided to go south to Reykjavík and train to be a midwife. The course took three months. At the same time, I took some dancing classes.”
Dýja comes from a long maternal line of midwives and long paternal line of undertakers, “handling people at their points of entry and exit,” as she says, “when the light comes on and . . . when the light goes off.” This opposition organizes the family’s psychological grid, in which life and death intersect with ideas of maternity and paternity, shot through with metaphors of light and darkness. Even the meteorologist sister participates, helping others through episodes of violent weather. When there’s no way out but through, it’s good to have a guide, and providing guidance is the family’s special genius.
Dýja tends to avoid her sister, who remains unnamed throughout the story. When they do connect, their conversations shimmer with a resentment that has roots in their oppressive childhood, packed with her parents’ mortuary paraphernalia and pervaded by “the overwhelming and inescapable aura of death.” Dýja and her sister are close in age, and people frequently mistake them for each other, conflations that reinforce her sister’s intrusions and sharpen the threat of important differences being erased. “In a way I’m more like you than myself,” the sister crows to Dýja after one of these mistaken-identity episodes, “and you me.” One evening, Dýja is frying a pair of lamb hearts in a pan. The doubling of the hearts evokes both twinship and the pregnant body, but Dýja preempts this significance by explaining to the reader that the meal is a common one, cheap and comforting, nothing symbolic.
When we name a hurt, we defang it; rendering losses in language can make them easier to bear.
When the meteorologist sister calls to lobby about the coming holiday, Dýja puts her on speaker and sets the phone on the drainboard, as if obliged to drain family situations of latent hostility. (She does similar work on the ward, steering drunken fathers-to-be out of delivery rooms.) “I don’t think it’s fair,” her sister says, “just because you don’t have your own family, you always have to be on duty at Christmas.”
Ouch. The reader knows that Dýja bore a stillborn son sixteen years earlier. “Nowadays stillborns are given names,” she notes wistfully at the grave of her son, who was born before this new pattern took hold.
Naming—or not—holds great power here. “There is a long tradition of being named after unmarried midwives in the family,” Dýja tells us, “when my sister decided to baptize her daughter as Dómhildur, she specifically pointed out that she was not being named after me but our grandaunt.” Oh well. “My colleagues know that I was christened after my grandaunt and that I live in her apartment,” Dýja explains, “that she was Dómhildur the first and that I am Dómhildur the second; Fífa and Dýja.” As a child, she loved visiting Fífa’s apartment of plush furniture and carefully tended plants, to be given “her undivided attention, unlike at home where I shared a room with my sister and slept on the upper bunk.” With Fífa, Dýja is special and whole; in her family, she must fight for space, as if she and her sister shared a single too-small womb.
“It’s a weird web what they call a family,” Fífa observes. She understands the power of naming and enriches her archive with archaic Icelandic words for weather and snippets of poetry about birth and death. In her archive, Dýja finds an account from a midwife about “conjoined twins who’d had a very difficult birth and both died.” A grieving mother who loses her baby tells Dýja: “Last night there were two hearts beating inside me.” Although they’re rendered allusively in stripped-down prose, when taken together, these moments powerfully undermine easy understandings of family as safe haven and of motherhood as unfailingly nurturing. They underscore the ferocity of any struggle for separation, whether through birth, death, grief, or simply growing up, the rupture necessary for individuation.
Against this violence, language is a character all its own. Fífa says, “a man can say”—can still say, can always say—“that he is a fish in a net of words.” More than that, with their capacity for meaning several things at once, words can capture and release experiences. In Fífa’s wonderful formulation, “our words are nets to catch the wind,” permitting losses to drain away while preserving our memories’ trace. When we name a hurt, we defang it; rendering losses in language can make them easier to bear. Iceland’s evocative language, fierce weather, and seismic restiveness enable Dýja—whose name means shake or quake—to wrest free from her oppressive family.
“Humans never recover from being born,” Fífa says. Birth is a profound existential crisis that not everyone will survive. Midwifery in Animal Life is a calling—possibly noble but also a demand, an obligation, a job you can’t quit. Perhaps the only people who truly understand this mixture of compulsion and duty are other midwives. Maybe mothers have a calling, too, but it’s distinct from that of the ljósmóðir. When the forecasted storm finally arrives, roof tiles take flight, one half of the double-maple crashes down, and the earth itself becomes “a body in a straitjacket,” trapped within a birth-like process that leaves “a gaping wound; its surface is torn and lacerated.”
“I haven’t come across a maternal instinct in me,” one of Fífa’s midwife-friends says. Fífa seconds the emotion: “Not all women long to be mothers.”