Fauna, Reviewed in the Globe and Mail

 

 July 29, 2010
By J.C. Sutcliffe
Call of the Wild

 

Close to the heart of the city, just a sparrow’s flight from the long corridors of glass and steel, lies a patch of land that seems irrelevant to the concrete bustle that dominates the environment. The Don Valley ravine is both setting and character in Alissa York’s new novel, Fauna, which depicts a quite different Toronto than the urban landscape of subways, cafes, offices and boutiques.

Guy Howell’s auto-wrecker’s yard in the ravine becomes a sanctuary for both humans and animals. Edal, a federal wildlife officer on stress leave, discovers the yard one day while out riding her bike in the ravine. Stephen has been living at the yard for a year and a half, helping out with the wrecking work and trying to heal himself after serving in Afghanistan. Lily has attached herself to the yard after escaping an abusive home life, but she prefers to keep her distance, staying in a tent in the ravine with her dog, Billy, for protection. Kate is a veterinary technician who stumbles across Lily and Billy one day while out for a run.

Although the five characters get together most days to eat, read aloud from animal novels and learn to trust, this is not merely a cozy idyll. Each member of the group is trying to peel away from a memory of childhood suffering or tragedy and the restrictive shapes it forced –and still forces – them to take. Edal is one of the more interesting and nuanced characters: York shows a wonderful understanding of Edal’s tentativeness, particularly her slow-blooming relationship with Guy, and finely observes human behaviour without giving her characters irritating quirks.

Fauna’s plot coalesces around the sixth character, decidedly not an animal lover. Darius lost his mother at a very young age and was sent to live with his grandparents in a rustic cabin.

This combination of extreme backwoods childhood and cruel grandfather has left Darius with a hatred for all of nature, and his vengeance is particularly directed at coyotes. He blogs about the dangers of the urbanized coyote and then begins to kill them in the ravine.

Stephen, who is set up as Darius’s good counterpart, reads the blog and despairs at the existence of people whose idea of interacting with the natural environment is diametrically opposed to Stephen’s own philosophy. While the first five characters are all involved, in one way or another, in rescuing injured animals, Darius sees nature simply as a threat to humans’ right to live wherever and however they want. Stephen feels compelled to act, and begins by commenting on the blog in the hope that Darius might see things from a slightly less anthropocentric position. The situation deteriorates: After Lily discovers the body of a killed and gratuitously maimed coyote, Stephen decides to track Darius down.

Nature, animals, loneliness and only children are recurring themes in York’s work. She writes convincingly – as well as poetically – about many different things, never limiting herself to known urban or domestic situations. In Effigy, York’s Scotiabank Giller Prize short-listed second novel, the Mormon main character’s fourth wife is a taxidermist who preserves animals for her husband’s collection, while Thomas in Mercy goes about his business of slaughtering and butchering animals. In this new novel, York’s expertise encompasses car-crushing and operating wrecking machinery, animal rescue and rehabilitation, and military duty in Afghanistan:

“The answer came in the crackle of small-arms fire, followed by the shriek of an RPG.

“Contact was hot and brief, the gunners in the LAV laying down cover while the troops on the ground moved in. Stephen scarcely had time to fire his weapon before the enemy was in retreat, a handful of thin, turban-topped backs glimpsed weaving between walls, plunging away …

“The child in the recruitment poster had lain quiet, gazing up at his saviour with adoring eyes, but the man in Stephen’s arms struggled like a goat going to slaughter. Stephen stumbled back through the grapes and the whispering sway of grain, unsure of his balance, his strength – unsure of anything but a need to reach the casualty collection point. The Talib was starting to settle, shock or blood loss or both. Soon he would be co-operating to the full.”

This rich novel is layered with astonishing detail, with every location vividly evoked and every action a visceral experience. Fauna culminates with the six characters pairing off: Two couples emerge as four of these lost children gradually learn the art of trust, while Stephen and Darius are ready to duel it out over the fate of the coyotes and over whose vision of nature is true. In the end, though, the coyotes have plans of their own for this raggle-taggle band. York knows that humans’ attempts to control their environment, whether respectful or rapacious, are ultimately doomed: Nature takes her own sweet time and always has the last word.

J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in England and Canada.

 

© 2011 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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