Fauna, Feature, Toronto Star


August 3, 2010

By Vit Wagner


Giller nominee Alissa York explores Toronto’s wild side

Alissa York is back with a new novel that invites us to reconsider our relationship to the animals who share our city.


Alissa York allows that she has never crossed paths with a coyote during her many excursions into the Don River Valley — or anywhere else in Toronto, for that matter. But unlike most other people who also haven’t experienced that encounter, the novelist views the failure as something closer to deprivation than good fortune.

“I need to get up a little earlier,” York figures. “If you get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, you’ve probably got a better chance. They’re on the move in the twilight hours.

“It’s not to say that I would never feel fear if I came upon a coyote on my own in certain circumstances. But mostly I’d feel excitement and delight in knowing that they are there.”

Coyotes do figure prominently in the newly published Fauna, York’s third novel and first since Effigy was a finalist for the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The book is also populated by raccoons, skunks, mice and various other animals and birdlife that inhabit the city’s ravines, parks and — in case of a certain masked intruder — our backyards, crawl spaces, garages and attics.

“You’re always hearing about raccoons breaking into people’s houses,” York says. “What interests me is the intensity of the reaction. Some people are delighted to be around animals, some are terrified and some are just irritated.

“It makes me sad when people can only see wildlife as an inconvenience. There’s an essential disconnection in that. That’s not what we’re like when we’re children. Kids don’t look at a pigeon and think, ‘Ooh, dirty, filthy pigeon.’

“I don’t want a pigeon pooping all over my house. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to put stuff on the roof that burns their feet off. I’m just going to put on the sticky stuff that makes them go away.”

York, who has lived in Riverdale for the past five years with her filmmaker husband Clive Holden, was raised in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta by nature-loving Australian immigrants.

“Both of my parents told a lot of stories about Australian flora and fauna. It’s part of the Australian identity,” she recalls. “Then we were in this completely different natural environment, which was a big part of my youth, so it formed my imagination.”

Fauna is a departure from York’s previous two novels: Mercy, which began in mid-20th -century Manitoba; and Effigy, which took place a century before that in Utah. Set in the here and now, the new novel gathers together a group of misfits who form bonds of friendship and romance out of a shared empathy for animals.

The focal point of Fauna is an auto-wrecking yard, located somewhat fantastically in the Don River Valley and managed by Guy, a mechanic who rehabilitates wounded wildlife when he isn’t towing cars. Guy’s regular dinner guests include Edal, a federal wildlife officer, Stephen, a young Afghanistan War vet, Kate, who works as a physiotherapist for dogs, Lily, a teen runaway, and Lily’s dog, Billy.

The book is littered with references to animal-themed fantasies, including Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Unlike those authors, York stops short of personifying the animals who reside in the Don Valley, although she tackles the tricky task of trying to see the world through their eyes.

“I read everything I could get my hands on,” she says. “One of the things I read was about how smart raccoons are and how much they learn by watching us. They will sit and watch somebody work their garage door or their garbage bin and then they will try it themselves.

“It’s fascinating, but as humans we tend to take the view that raccoons are busting into our lives. We’re the species on the planet that are wiping out species after species after species. And yet we somehow manage to cast ourselves in the victim role.”

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