Oddly, my fascination with words may have begun with snails in seventh-grade biology. I still remember, lo these many decades later, learning that gastropod, the name of a snail's biological class, derived from the Greek words for stomach and foot, and thus concealed clues to its meaning.

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir's new novel "Animal Life" is not concerned with gastropods, but it does spring from etymology, specifically of the Icelandic term for midwife, ljósmódir, which comprises the words for light and mother. In 2013, Icelanders voted it the most beautiful word in their language, and readers of "Animal Life" may be hard-pressed to disagree.

The novel, in Brian FitzGibbon's English-language translation, is a probing, discursive meditation on the implications of a midwife as "mother of light," and more generally on the "precariousness of life and the light."

Dýja, a Reykjavík midwife in her early 40s, is descended from generations of midwives, including her great-grandmother and her grand-aunt Fífa. Her parents, however, run a funeral home, where Dýja and her sister worked in high school. Faced with the choice of focusing on our entry to the world or our exit, Dýja chose to follow her grand-aunt's example.

When Fífa died at age 93, four years before the novel begins, Dýja inherited not only her furnished apartment with its "whole forest of potted plants" and handmade tapestry depicting the "original mother of light" Mary breastfeeding Jesus, but also a box of Fífa's writing, including three unpublished manuscripts. In the ensuing years, Dýja hasn't changed much of anything, sleeping in her grand-aunt's bed, using her handmade curtains from the '70s, and struggling over her legacy. "The more I try to piece the jigsaw of my grand-aunt's life together the more questions it raises."

This struggle stems partly from Dýja's reluctance to confront the past, partly from the fact that Fífa puzzled over consequential questions. She was an early environmentalist, writing op-eds on climate change. She researched the history of midwifery in Iceland's isolated northwest. And she mused on whether humanity "has a place in the world" or "is perhaps redundant." Dýja comes to realize that no matter the topic, her grand-aunt was "always, in fact, [writing] about herself."

As a midwife, Fífa delivered more than 5,000 children, leading her to conclude that "the most challenging experience in life is coming into the world and that the most difficult thing is to get used to the light." In a country as far north as Iceland, the elusive nature of light during half the year lends poignant subtext to the novel, which takes place in December. FitzGibbon seamlessly handles many such lexical allusions and double meanings, and deserves special mention for the straightforward beauty of Fífa's writings and the novel's final poetic page.

Dýja's character arc is largely psychological, processing and letting go, as a historic storm approaches Iceland. Her progress is halting, but fitting for a novel that emphasizes the difficulty of navigating a world full of some people who "bring light with them," and others who "try to drag you into their darkness."

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

Animal Life

By: Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon.

Publisher: Black Cat, 192 pages, $17.