Animals are the real heroes in Alissa York’s Fauna, as the title suggests. The animals are the ones that live (perhaps “who live” would be more appropriate) in Toronto, most specifically in that city’s Don River Valley. Animal life has become something of a fad in some recent fiction – fad or zeitgeist, it depends on how you look at it. One of the challenges writers face if they want to use animal voices is this: we might love animals, we might care for them, but we cannot know what they know and feel and we certainly can’t assume that they use the English language the way we do. When I read a description of a foraging skunk, for example, I can’t help but wonder whether I am reading the author’s pretention that she knows what a skunk knows. It’s a problem of epistemology.
In York’s work, the role of animals is clear. They stand for the victimized and the innocent, though in Fauna there is no shortage of hurt human characters either. All of York’s human creations – and not just animal ones – are grievously wounded. She starts the story with Edal, an agent for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources who is on stress leave, though we don’t learn why. In her wanderings through Toronto, Edal comes upon an auto junkyard where two young men, one a former soldier who served in Afghanistan and who is carrying his share of post-traumatic stress, are looking after animals, both dead and living ones, in their own way.
The junkyard serves as the physical focus of the novel. A young street kid named Lily ventures there, since her habit of picking up birds that have been lured to their death by the brightly lit skyscrapers of downtown Toronto makes her a kindred spirit of Guy and Stephen, the fellows in the junkyard. Lily maintains her symbiosis with animals through her dog Billy that keeps her relatively safe in her camping spot in the bush of the Don Valley. All these characters form a harmonious sort of family, an assembly of the hurt, and they function fairly well together. Though their back stories all feature various types of trauma, there are several tender moments, most notably the foreplay between Guy and Edal that features one of the junkyard machines.
In this chronicle of Toronto underground life, the only danger comes from the Internet of all places, via a character who calls himself Coyote Cop, and who has dedicated himself to eliminating that animal from the Don Valley, according to his blog. Needless to say, this group of animal lovers is outraged by Coyote Cop, who is obviously one sick puppy, and they get more concerned when the Cop ramps up the level of violence on his blog.
It would be unfair to readers to reveal who among the denizens of the Valley Coyote Cop is, and what his eventual fate will be. But this character seems to have stepped right out of Alissa York’s earlier novel Effigy, which takes place in the American West during the nineteenth century. The Gothic-toned Effigy is a marvel of a book in which animals play an important part, since the heroine of the story, a polygamist’s last wife, has taken to creative taxidermy in an effort to make some private space for herself. There, the use of animal characters is vastly more original than in Fauna, where they are forced to play the victim role – the victims of us humans.
David Homel is a Montreal writer and filmmaker whose latest novel is Midway, published by Cormorant Books.