Fauna, Reviewed in the Montreal Gazette


Respecting nature
Ian McGillis. Montreal Gazette. July 31, 2010.
By Alissa York.
Random House Canada. 373 pages. $29.95.


We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us. It’s a simple truth that’s been reaching critical mass recently, spurred by Alan Weisman’s groundbreaking The World Without Us, a book that hypothesized what might happen to our planet should all people disappear tomorrow. Basically, posited Weisman, the works of humankind would very soon crumble, reclaimed by the realm they had meant to control.

Even if Alissa York hasn’t read The World Without Us, she’s certainly been thinking along parallel lines. At one point in Fauna, a young woman strolling with her dog through downtown Toronto finds herself musing, “What if the wilderness really did take it all back one day? Roofs torn open by gleaming tusks, cars strangled, concrete heaving and splitting apart.” Like Weisman, York presents the scenario as a sobering projection but also as an implied challenge: How do we get beyond the denial and fear-fuelled relationship with nature that has led us to the brink of catastrophe? The implied answer -by trying for something more respectful, more balanced, more nuanced -may look simple but, as York shows in her daringly conceived and exquisitely executed new novel, it’s faced with no end of obstacles.

If I’ve made Fauna sound like a parable, it is, but rest assured it’s a novel set very much in the real world, with characters no less genuine. That world is Toronto, where an assortment of outcasts, misfits, orphans and idealists find themselves drawn to the urban-country interzone in and around the Don Valley. That untamed swath bisecting the bustling city has been used as a symbol in fiction before -Catherine Bush’s The Rules of Engagement springs to mind -but for York, it’s especially germane. For people dealing with various forms of trauma, isolation and disillusionment -and that’s everyone in Fauna -the valley offers a chance for connection, both with fellow sufferers and with the animals in whose vulnerability they see themselves. People being people, though, occasionally that connection gets twisted into something destructive.

Though there’s no protagonist as such, the central character in Fauna is Edal Jones, a woman on stress leave from a government job where she caught people smuggling illegal pets and animal body parts into the country. She finds a haven, figurative and literal, at a valley-bordering wrecking yard run by Guy Howell, a man with a penchant for taking in strays both human and animal: He’s retraining a broken-winged hawk, weaning a litter of orphaned raccoons and sheltering a disabled soldier and a teenage runaway. Such figures might seem clumsy representatives of certain noble qualities if York didn’t do such a good job of bringing them to life on the page. No one in Fauna is any less convincing than anyone else, and that includes the animals, whose viewpoints York shows without succumbing to the temptation of anthropomorphism. She’s particularly good at portraying human-animal interfaces and relationships: the runaway Lilly and her protector dog, Billy; the former soldier Stephen flashing back to his tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he was followed in the desert by a shade-seeking, highly venomous camel spider.

As is so often the case, the most mixed up and troubled character is also the most intriguing, to the point where readers may find themselves perversely wishing for proportionally more time in the company of 19-year-old Darius. The product of a violent, repressed backwoods upbringing that could almost be straight out of a 19th-century frontier novel, Darius channels his resentment against the very nature he grew up surrounded by, restyling himself online as Coyote Cop and embarking on a campaign to eradicate the Don Valley’s coyote population. “They get in,” he blogs,” and its (sic) our job to get them out.”

This puts him on an unavoidable collision course with the more enlightened denizens of the wrecking yard; a gruesome end looks inevitable, but York’s handling of the climax proves as unexpected as it is apt.

“The longer he watched it, the lovelier it became” is how Stephen responds to his potentially fatal desert companion, and one suspects that for York, it’s also something of an over-arching philosophy about nature and how we should live with it. In this regard, she’s very much aware of her literary lineage, lacing the book with references to classics of animal lit by Jack London, Gerald Durrell, Gavin Maxwell, Farley Mowat, C.S. Lewis and, most prominently, Rudyard Kipling, whose The Jungle Book is read aloud by Guy to anyone spending time at the wrecking yard. Though readers unfamiliar with the source material may find themselves a bit left out at such times, ultimately the concern is rendered moot by the realization that York has produced a beguilingly original work, strange and disturbing in the best ways, that lets us view the world around us with fresh eyes.

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