Book Reviews - Fiction
Fauna by Alissa York, Random House Canada, hardcover, $29.95, 373 pages, ISBN 978-0-307-35789-2; this book is also available as an e-book.
By Alidė Kohlhaas
Many nights a family of coyotes barks somewhere within the vicinity of my home. The sound is a good one because it means that the wildlife that constitutes part of my daily existence consists of an unbroken chain. I single out the coyotes of all the animals in my world because an extraordinary novel by Alissa York, Fauna, features coyotes among many animals found in the ravines of Toronto's Don River Valley similar to the ones I see daily in a different setting. Fauna, however, is not so much a book about animals as one about a group of humans and their relationship to each other and to wildlife. They inhabit or visit the ravines that make Toronto a highly unusual metropolis because it contains untamed wilderness in its very center.
In Fauna five people make their appearance early on in the novel. None of these seems more important than all the other characters and therefore there is no single protagonist. There is also a shadowy sixth individual who appears mostly through disturbing internet postings. It is not easy to create so many fully dimensional characters, yet York manages to do so with seeming ease. Most importantly, the reader can relate or sympathize with each one. It is even possible to find compassion for that shadowy internet poster, whom one somehow senses very early on will bring tragedy to these ravines that the other five cherish.
The book opens with Edal, a federal wildlife officer, who is on stress leave. The cruelty and stupidity of humans who attempt to smuggle wildlife into Canada have finally caught up with her. On one of her bike rides through the city she ends up going into the Don River Valley where she comes across a wrecking yard run by Guy Howell. She is led there by Lilly and her dog Billy, whom she had followed surreptitiously because she had instinctively suspected her of doing something illegal. Whether she had been right is for the reader to find out.
Lilly is a homeless waif who has formed a strong bond with Guy, a man who collects and attempts to heal injured humans and animals. His wrecking yard is also where Stephen, an Afghan War veteran, works and tries to mend his emotional wounds. The fifth character is Kate, a veterinary assistant, who encounters Lilly and dog while on a morning run.
One day Stephen finds a flyer with a URL to coyotecop.blogmaster.com, which arouses his curiosity. He fails to tell Guy or any of the others in his circle about this and secretly goes to the website. There he discovers someone who wants to eliminate coyotes. Stephen decides to correspond with coyotecop in the hope of bringing about a change of mind.
When coyotecop entered the story I wondered if York had in part been inspired to write the book in response to the coyote hysteria that swept Toronto two winters ago. A hunting coyote appeared in the ravines on which homes abut just a little too close to the natural habitat of wildlife. It sadly killed a small dog. Admittedly, my sympathy is minute for those who think they can encroach on this environment without expecting that during winter's food scarcity, coyotes will refrain from now and then snapping up a small cat or dog for a meal if the owner is foolish enough to let it outside.
Of course, York very elegantly refrains from preaching in this book. She simply reveals to us the many hurts humans carry with them and the growing and maturing they have to do to heal again. In this case, it happens partly through Guy, who allows them to come to his yard for a daily evening meal, followed by an evening's entertainment of reading out loud books about animals. These stories, part of our own childhood, are usually from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Richard Adams' Watership Down.
At the same time, York draws marvelous portraits of the behavior wildlife displays in the ravines and in the city's back alleys. She does so without resorting to anthropomorphizing the big and small creatures that she has braided into the story. She also very skillfully brings out a slowly blossoming relationship between Guy and Edal that is, as the rest of the book, utterly believable. And she does not wrap either characters or the reader into warm and fuzzy down with her story. Reality crashes through with such marvelous scenes as Stephen's memories of Afghanistan in which a poisonous spider follows him to find shade; most darkly through coyotecop's personal story that has twisted his understanding of nature and our relationship to it; through the natural disasters that befall the animal world with or without our hand in it; the relationship Edal has to turtles, which finds a climax in the final moments of the book.
Fauna was my introduction to York's body of work. Since then I have read her two previous novels, Mercy, and the Giller Prize nominated Effigy. All three novels are very different in setting, period, and subject. Yet, they have three things in common: thoughtful writing, a sense of poetry in prose, and at least one character, who is gentle with animals. All three books can be highly recommended for an excellent read, although Fauna stands out more distinctly because the subject matter comes closest to our own ken, and to our own time and environment. In this respect, it is refreshing to see a book set in that part of Toronto that amazes those who come from other large cities or abroad, and who are made familiar with the truly wild side of the city. Besides, this book, despite its theme and title refrains from bringing outright political thought into the story. The reader is allowed to enjoy the book for what it is despite its multi-layered subject matter.
One last note. I like the inside cover design of Fauna. It looks like a well used, well weathered volume that has been carried around, and handed from reader to reader. It expresses graphically my feelings about a book that will take pride of place on my bookshelves.
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