Friday, August 06, 2010
Fauna / Alissa York
Toronto: Random House, c2010.
I received this book as an ARC from the publisher ahead of its recent release, and have just finished it this week. This is the second novel I've read by a new-to-me Canadian author, for this year's Canadian Book Challenge. Like the first one I read, this is set in Toronto, which is a coincidence, but an interesting one. Many of the locations are the same, and it amused me to think of the various characters from each book coming across each other as they walked the same streets.
Fauna was a mesmerizing book. The atmosphere is immensely rich. There is a large-ish cast of characters, perhaps a few too many at certain points for my brain to absorb; sometimes focusing so deeply on so many alternating lives was discombobulating, even if each person was fascinating. Fauna deals with issues of urban wilderness -- birds flying into office towers, foxes and raccoons becoming roadkill, coyotes in the city -- and skunks, foxes and raccoons have little narratives of their own within the tale. We meet one of the main characters, Edal, as the book opens. She is on stress leave from her job as a federal wildlife officer, unable to take one more experience of the hideous deaths of foreign species smuggled in to Canada by greedy humans (sadly a situation in the news just this week). She is drawn back into life, into some kind of human community, when she comes across Lily, a young street kid, and her huge black dog, who are gathering up stunned birds from under office buildings in the early dawn. Edal follows her, to a wrecking yard on the edge of the Don Valley, slightly apart from the urban sprawl she's used to. There she meets the owner, Guy, his assistant Stephen, and through them a few other characters as the book goes on. This is an idyllic group, a set of injured individuals aiding one another as they rescue and care for (and sometimes provide final resting places for) injured wildlife. As a federal wildlife officer, Edal knows that this is illegal but as they are all obviously sincere, concerned and knowledgeable she doesn't say anything. It helps, of course, that she is increasingly attracted to Guy.
This group is at the heart of the novel; their shaping of themselves into a family is a slow, steady development. One of the lovely elements of this book is how it continually and directly references and quotes from other animal books. Lily reads Watership Down on Guy's recommendation, and copies passages into a notebook (which we get to read). Edal herself is named after an otter in Gavin Maxwell's A Ring of Bright Water -- passages of which are included as Edal recalls reading it as a child. One of the habits the group has is to listen to Guy read aloud after their communal suppers. They read The Jungle Book throughout the novel, sharing relevant scenes with us as readers. The chapters about Darius, who comes in to the story later, are tied up with The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, in a really sad way. The titles of various chapters all refer to one of these books as well. This is very much a book for the bookish.
However, all is not paradisaical in this latter-day Eden. Stephen comes across a blog written by Coyote Cop, advocating the violent destruction of the coyote population. The blog exchanges between Stephen and Coyote Cop add a tech element to a very nature focused story. This part of the book wasn't my favourite storyline; the background story of Darius (Coyote Cop) was unpleasant and miserable, and though his role is not central to the story we spend many pages reading about him. Considering the conclusion, I felt my emotional investment in his story was not really worth it.
One other part of the story that niggled, for me, was the fact that none of these serious animal lovers was vegetarian. There are descriptions of their meals, Stephen's lentil stew but also meatloaf and chicken and so on. Coming immediately after sorrowful burying of wild birds unfortunate enough to fly into windows, it jarred a little on this vegetarian's sensibilities. To be fair, York does include a statement about how one couldn't function feeling the pain of every creature in the world. And all the naturalist books referred to in the story take animal eating animal as part of the cycle of life. Still, I'd have thought at least one of these gentle folk would have been a vegetarian, even just statistically.
As Stephen types in a blog comment:
There's a switch inside every one of us that I guess grew there as a necessary part of survival. How can you drag a fish up out of the river for your supper if you feel the yank of the hook in your own cheek? I get that part. We can't feel for everyone and everything all the time. We'd die of sorrow or fear or sorrow a hundred times a day. The thing is, it's gotten so we flick that switch off like it's nothing. And, more often than not, we forget to turn it back on.
However, all told, this was a magnetic tale. I couldn't stop thinking about all the engaging characters when I wasn't reading, and was in a rush to get back to the book at the first opportunity when I was forced to put it down. The obvious affection York has for the natural world and for her vulnerable characters comes through strongly, and creates an absorbing narrative. The location of Toronto is also a major character in the book, with wilder places like the Don Valley and Riverdale Farm, as well as the streets of the city, playing a huge role. The sense of place is rich and satisfying. It is a slow and deep story, full of varied rewards. It may also open your eyes to the plethora of animal life in any city, proving that the human belief in our general superiority is based on shaky ground.
Alissa York was born in 1970, in Athabasca, Alberta, to Australian immigrant parents. has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband, writer/filmmaker Clive Holden. Alissa published her first story in The New Quarterly in 1995. Her highly acclaimed first novel, Mercy, was published in 2003. Second novel Effigy was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.