“A love letter to the planet, its people, and the hopeful longevity of both… a beautiful and profound book.” The New European

In 2013, Icelanders voted for the most beautiful word in their language. They chose a nine-letter one, the job title of a healthcare worker, the Icelandic term for midwife: ljósmóðir. In its reasoning, the jury stated that the word was a composite of the two most beautiful words: móðir, meaning mother, and ljós which means light. 

Although I had two other novels and four plays to write first, that was where the initial idea came from to one day write a novel that would focus on the meaning of light in a world of darkness in which the narrator would be a midwife, a mother of light. The book that became Animal Life was mostly written in the isolation of the two-year Covid lockdown on my black volcanic island. I also decided that the novel would talk about humankind as a fragile species that also happens to be the most dangerous in its greed and selfishness. The book starts with the scene of a birth, A human’s most difficult experience. To be born, and describes the human animal’s precarious predicament as it lies there naked and helpless, blinking into the light, more fragile than a porcelain vase, than a bird’s egg, the most fragile of the fragile on the planet. The title of the book in Icelandic is Dýralíf, which means ‘animal life’, but it can also be written and understood as two words: Dýra líf or precious life.

A novel needs oppositions, which means that you can’t write an ode to life without speaking of death, in the same way that you can’t write about light without writing about darkness since both are intertwined. The reason why I let the book unfold in the darkest days of the year, just before Christmas, is because the best time to understand light is when it is in short supply. A novel is built on polarities, and living in the north with its dark winters and bright summers sharpens our sensitivity to light. According to my mother the first word I uttered was ljós, light, pointing up to the sky. (She was a mother of five and might have been confusing her children. The story goes that it was the aurora borealis!)

It is not uncommon in Iceland for the profession of midwife to run in families, from woman to woman, so I let the narrator descend from four generations of midwives. I also decided to have two overlapping voices in the story, two midwives of different generations – a grandaunt, who like many older-generation midwives didn’t have any children of her own, and her grandniece, who inherited her apartment with all its contents. 

Because the older midwife is a kind of self-made eccentric philosopher, I can make her say things about humans (and about parents) that I as the author could never say out loud. As for the younger midwife, her story is more of a Bildungsroman. As she is renovating and painting the apartment she inherited, she stumbles across the journals of her grandaunt who believed man is born to love. As a fierce storm descends on Reykjavik, she seeks new directions and meanings for her own life in her grandaunt’s writings.

Animal Life not only stresses the weaknesses of humans in comparison to other animals, but also considers human weaknesses to be our strength.”

My main goal is always to tell a story, but given the fact that Animal Life speaks about the human animal, I thought environmental disasters could be linked to various interesting questions about human nature. I was in my early twenties when I came to understand that nature didn’t need humanity even if humanity needed nature. At the time I was an art history student in Paris, and during the summer vacation I used to work as a mountain guide in Iceland. In those days, tourism was a primitive industry, the buses were old, the roads were extremely bad, the hotels were boarding schools in the countryside and the guides were young students who didn’t have proper outdoor clothes. I remember trying to make up for my lack of experience by telling the French and Italian tourists to listen to the silence. It was during these light summer days and nights that I, a city child of Reykjavik, got to know the glaciers. One clear summer night, while the tourists slept, I walked alone up to the edge of the largest glacier in Europe and watched the endless expanse of white snow fill the horizon. That’s when I understood that nature will always have the last say. Glaciers contain three-quarters of Earth’s freshwater but today, due to climate change, they are melting and disappearing at an alarming rate. 

But this isn’t new knowledge. We’ve known for the past fifty years that if we don’t stop over-consuming, humans will be threatened with extinction along with countless other species. That’s the reason I decided to make the older midwifean ecologist ahead of her time, writing articles decades ago about environmental issues that she had difficulties getting published. 

As an author, I find the question of how to survive more interesting and challenging than how to die. That’s why Animal Life not only stresses the weaknesses of humans in comparison to other animals, but also considers human weaknesses to be our strength since they have led to solutions to various problems and to significant discoveries. We can’t see in the dark like some animals, so we invented electricity. We can’t fly, but we invented airplanes. Man has a brain that is five times bigger than it should be, considering the size of his body, the older midwife writes. That means we can find solutions to problems if we want to save the planet. The fragile and cruel human animal can begin to behave in an unpredictable and positive way and invent something ingenious for the whole community.  

In a previous novel, Hotel Silence, I tried to explore whether man is the only animal that laughs or cries, and discovered that we are the only animals that do both. In Animal Life humans are the only animal that writes poetry and tells stories. The older midwife has lost faith in humanity, but she hasn’t lost faith in the child. Or in poets, who will be part of her future utopia. She is not the first person to say that poetry can save the world. 

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is a prize-winning novelist, playwright and poet. Her novels have been translated into 33 languages, and won the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the Icelandic Literary Prize, the Prix Médicis Étranger and the Icelandic Bookseller’s Prize. She lives in Reykjavik. Animal Life, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is published by Pushkin Press along with her previous novels Butterflies in NovemberHotel Silence and Miss Iceland.
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Author portrait © Saga Sig