Please, please forgive the pun but I'm going to fawn over Alissa York's magnificent Fauna over the next few paragraphs. Good lord I fell hard for this novel, for the author's imagination, likening my experience of reading this book to the high school crush I had on a boy named Chris P. Rice -- his blond hair and blue eyes ruining me for months when our brief love affair ended. I fell and fell hard, just like I did for Fauna.
The novel counts squirrels, bats, raccoons, coyotes, and skunks among its characters. All kinds of critters combine to create a world that exists, wild and sometimes frantic, in and around the edges of the urban city of Toronto. In a way, even the human characters are misfits, outcasts, human versions of the animals they co-habitat with in between the pages. Edal, a troubled young woman who used to work for the Forestry service, currently on leave, befriends and then feels abandoned by a mouse in her house. She's suffered a loss that she can't quantify and spends much of the book trying to find her way back from tragedy.
And while you don't find out what that tragedy is until the end of the book, how she comes to met Guy, a kindhearted animal lover who runs a scrap heap/yard/towing service feels magical and reminiscent of fairy tales. Edal enters his giant yard by a locked gate (The Secret Garden!), finds their magical world (SPOILER: an animal graveyard covered with hubcaps), and returns often to listen to him read The Jungle Book out loud (ever good relationship starts with a story). Rounding out Guy's (he's named after Lafleur, people pronounce it incorrectly ALL the time) motley crew are Stephen, a wounded war vet and Lily, a teenage runaway who makes her home in the Don Valley.
The novel takes you through each of these characters, and one other, Darius aka "Coyote Cop," as they interact with various different kinds of wildlife in the city. Oh, and there's another character, Kate, who is also broken -- she works at an animal rehabilitation clinic in the city and meets Lily as she's jogging through the Valley. The one theme that holds them all together is their love of animals. Whether as a career or a hobby or, in Darius's case, as a strange obsession, animals become a focal point to how they understand the world around them. Every single one of York's characters feels empathy in a way that accelerates how connected we are with the animal world around us, even when we live in a concrete jungle like Toronto.
Yet, even when the animal characters show up in the vignettes, York's not anthropomorphizing in any way. These aren't Disney squirrels. They aren't Alvin and his brothers. I mean, it would be impossible not to describe them in human terms, but you get a real sense of what life is like for a skunk in the city, you feel the raccoons fingers trying to figure out a bungee cord, and you see the car lights flashing by as the animals attempt to cross the road. It makes the world of this novel feel more organic than setting traditionally is in a novel -- the leaves and trees, the bugs, the mice, the living, breathing world that surrounds these characters becomes so much more rich and alive with York's magical thinking (I KNOW, I hate using that term but it feels magical, it does).
There's little about this novel I didn't like. There's deep emotional resonance, fascinating characters, and even if the essence of the novel's plot runs a bit thin, the wildness and imagination that courses through every page, every sentence, of the book more than makes up for it. I didn't need a lot to happen on the surface of this novel -- because the ideas that drive the story were so rich and experiential that I was pulled along regardless. It's one of my favourites I've read this year, absolutely. Highly, highly recommended.