Fauna, Reviewed in Winnipeg Free Press

 

July 31, 2010
By Bob Armstrong

 

If you’ve every delighted at the presence of a raccoon in your back alley, or been thrilled to discover a fox following his nose through a city park, former Winnipegger Alissa York’s new novel will strike a sympathetic note.

And if in your childhood you ever retreated to the woods for refuge from growing pains, or something worse, you’ll be captivated by this story of a group of orphans drawn together by passion for big-city wildlife.

York moved to Toronto five years ago. She demonstrated a fascination with nature in her first award-winning story collection, Any Given Power, and her earlier novels Mercy and the Giller-nominated Effigy. She begins this new novel with a traumatized wildlife officer, on stress leave after she has discovered too many dead exotic animals in the luggage of smugglers at Toronto’s Pearson airport.The wildlife officer, Edal Jones, follows a semi-feral street kid to an auto-wrecking yard, where eventually she discovers a self-selected family of wounded souls dedicated to saving the lost and injured animals of Canada’s largest city.

Fauna is a book about the healing power of the natural world, but it’s also a book about books about the healing power of the natural world. Protagonist Edal is named after one of the otters in Gavin Maxwell’s classic memoir Ring of Bright Water. Teenage runaway Lily reads Watership Down in her hidden tent in the Don Valley ravine. Paterfamilias Guy reads Kipling’s Jungle Book every evening to the assembled group of orphans and castaways, which also includes Stephen, a young, PTSD-affected Afghan War veteran. Even the story’s dark force, an obsessed coyote-killing loner named Darius, recalls his grandmother reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to him. (Tellingly, young Darius identified with Edmund, the boy who betrays the divine lion Aslan to the evil White Witch.)

Orphans are a recurring theme in York’s novel and in many of the nature books that her characters read. York’s characters rescue animals that have been orphaned as a result of road kill or other human activities — reenacting the story lines of classic nature books and films.They have themselves lost parents to suicide, madness, or traffic accidents — or been virtually orphaned by parental self-absorption or cruelty. They are nurtured by the hidden wilds of Toronto, just as Kipling’s Mowgli is sheltered and taught by Baloo and Bagheera. When the characters come together at Guy’s auto wrecking yard, Edal looks around and realizes: “They could be a family, and a modern one at that.”

One of the novel’s strengths is the way York turns her gaze from the human world to the world of Toronto’s skunks, coyotes, racoons and squirrels.

Like a latter-day Ernest Thompson Seton (who created the modern animal story genre after a spell in Manitoba in the late 19th century), she gets into the minds of animals going about their business without exactly anthropomorphizing them, as in this description of a skunk:

“He’s a fine hunter, young but able, no trace of the blind kitten he once was. The memory lives in his senses: the massed, many-hearted comfort of the den; the return of the mother’s pungent coat and sweet-smelling teats.”

Like Seton — whose innovation was exploring the essential tragedy of all animal lives — York doesn’t back away from darkness. Even as she brings animals to life with her writing, she is clear about the terrible toll taken by everything from cars, to skyscraper windows, to live electrical wires.

And as for her human characters, while love does have healing powers, there are some wounds that won’t heal.

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