Friday, April 13, 2012

Fauna by Alissa York

Is any novel not about redemption? Or is it just the ones I'm reading lately? Anyway, this story is about six people and their relationships with each other and with animals. Which is pretty much the simplest way you could put it, but it really does the book no justice.

The majority of the novel is set at a small house in a junkyard on Toronto's east side. Guy lives there and runs the company, which is vaguely related to fixing cars, or towing them or something. Stephen is his live-in employee who is suffering from PTSD after returning from a six-month tour in Afghanistan. They have attracted a young runaway, Lily, who camps out in the Don Valley with her big Newfoundland cross, Billy, and marks her days of freedom with notches she cuts into her arm. She rescues birds who have flown into the big glass buildings of the city and buries the dead ones in Guy's backyard.

There's Edal, a federal wildlife officer on stress leave after one too many animals suffocates while being smuggled through customs; Kate, a physiotherapist for dogs who is coping with the loss of her partner; and Darius, a disturbed young man hell-bent on ridding the Don Valley of coyotes. 

The novel is really a collection of origin stories; nothing much actually happens in real time. It's a pretty interesting look at how our past shapes us, of what families are made of, and of the old wisdom of being able to take the measure of a person based on how they treat those who can't fight back. Guy takes them all in, this extended family of weirdos with their baggage and quirks. It's very sweet.

I was worried when I first started reading that there would be a lot of heartbreaking animal deaths in this book. Animals getting hurt is a big trigger for me, even fictional animals. But apart from some descriptions of the smuggling early on, and some later talk about killing coyotes in cruel ways, it was relatively painless. It is really about the human drama, although there are some intervals where we see things from an animal's point of view, which is kind of cool.

I thought the author made great use of Toronto as a backdrop - the semi-wild Don Valley is a nice contrast to the usual Toronto stories set in the hustle and bustle of downtown. It also introduces the theme of living alongside the wilderness in modern times very well. As Canadians, our collective subconscious remembers our history as fur traders, the wild frontiers and the winter hardship. There were shades of that here, of how much more like these animals we are than we would like to believe.

The book is beautifully written. It tells some very sweet, very sad stories, and the tone doesn't really become hopeful until probably the last page (maybe even the last sentence?). It builds nicely though, and the characters are easy to sympathize with. I wished there was more to it - I wanted more actual action, more conversation even. I felt like a lot of things could have been edited down to make room for the development of that hopeful tone, to emphasize the point where things started to turn around, and to build more of the link between the characters.

That said, I did like it and it was an engaging read. Four towers out of five.

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