Alissa York’s Fauna
Random House, 2010

What is so remarkable about Fauna is that it is all-of-a-piece. (It’s exactly the kind of book that makes me proud to be a reader.)

From its beautifully crafted outer covers: a soft, earthy brown — imprinted with a turtle.

Underneath its rich burgundy jacket, with simple but perfectly chosen images.

To its inner covers, made to look yellowed and worn in places so that the threads show through.

And its facing pages, which appear yellowed and stained, even slightly soiled, on the old-fashioned pattern.

(It’s like a living thing, with a coat, its undersides soft and differently coloured, but still a part of the whole.)

To its finely shaped content: its characters, its places, its stories.

Oh, yes, the stories and their inhabitants. For this cast seems organically of the text. There are quite a few characters — two-legged and four-legged — and they slip easily into and out of the narrative.

One we only meet directly once, but his presence is recognizable in other parts of the narrative. Others have a more prominent position and claim a larger portion of the narrative.

With an ensemble cast like this, it might be easy to get attached to one or two voices and watch for those above all others, but these are interwoven so carefully that there is no opportunity to tire of a single thread.

Readers first meet Edal, who combines a fierceness with a vulnerability, and she sees readers off as well, the final image of the story, bringing that arc to a satisfying and appropriate resolution (and colouring the narrative as a whole).

Her story, and that of all the other characters, whether they play a major or minor role in Fauna, is rooted in the theme of survival.

Survival, in and of itself, but also the ways in which it intersects with others’ needs and desires, the way that two -leggeds pair off or help each other, the way that a raccoon can adopt a kitten. But of course one’s needs and desires don’t always promote another’s: often they are in conflict.

Structurally, the novel mirrors its theme. Each of the segments intersects with other parts of the story, some more so than others, and you could chart the web of characters as a biologist might.

But although the individual storylines are engaging, beneath the web of lives run a series of questions — in varied guises — that readers cannot avoid.

What constitutes a family? Who are “all our relations”? How do we — as readers, in the wider world — contribute to the lives of those around us? How do we care for and injure others who share this desire to survive?

What is even more remarkable about Fauna, too, is that it is all-of-a-piece on its own, but also all-of-a-piece with Alissa York’s wider body of work, from her short story collection (Any Given Power), through her earlier novels (Mercy and Effigy).

In a busy reading season, a work like Fauna truly stands out.

Note:This is the fifth of the five posts that focus on the titles nominated for the 2011 Toronto Book Award. The others have/will appear/ed on October 6,8,10,and 11,with something fun for the 13th,the evening on which the prize is to be announced.

Toronto-ness in Alissa York’s Fauna: Mt. Stephen Street, Bloor Street Viaduct, Ravine Trails, DVP, Broadview, Jilly’s, Queen Street West, Cherry Beach, Chinatown East, Necropolis, Riverdale Farm

Reading Companions (taken from the body of Fauna):
Kipling: A Selection of His Stories and Poems (Ed. John Beecroft)
Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (1961)
Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972)