Fauna, Christiane Vadnais (Coach House Books 978-1-55245-416-9, $15.99, 144 pages) September 2020.
Originally published in French back in 2018, the award-winning Fauna by Quebec author Christiane Vadnais imagines an Earth radically transformed by climate change. The short novel comprises ten linked stories set mostly around Shivering Heights where “life is an enigma of water and sky” and where some days the rain “falls in perfectly formed pearls… [and] on other days, the showers mist down like gossamer, enveloping forests and outcroppings.” Amongst this drenched, fertile backdrop, Laura, a scientist who has travelled to coastal villages “cobbled together from old barges and sailboats, boards salvaged from yachts,” has discovered a parasite both in the water and the stomachs of the radically transformed animals she dissects. As Laura works “under a toxic green moon” to understand the parasite, she recognises that it’s not just the animals who are mutating.
The ten stories vary in tone, though more often than not they have a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, aspect. There’s the girl who hides each night from the ghostly, scratching, squealing presence of her deformed rabbits. There’s the religious fanatic who breaks into an animal enclosure so he can lie with the lions in their den like the Biblical Daniel. And there’s the young man, Thomas, who falls in love with Laura and whose skin has taken on a scaly, fishy texture. The most memorable piece sees Laura snowed in at work, forced to give birth amongst the specimens in her lab.
With a devotion to language, to rhythm, to imagery (beautifully translated by Pablo Strauss) Vadnais injects a mythical, even scriptural quality to the stark realities of global warming. The opening story that introduces us to Shivering Heights is set before the deluge that will reshape the planet (just like Noah’s flood) and features a young woman named Heather, otherworldly in bearing, who appears to celebrate the coming chaos. Then, later in the book, Laura has a vision of the future that has all the hallmarks of an Old Testament prophet:
The force of change spares only the most immense, inanimate things: sky, water, rocks people still stubbornly cling to. She sees roads being built and disintegrating, once and then a hundred and a thousand times, slithering like garter snakes in the deserts of snow…. She sees houses settling and sinking into the earth, sprouting holes and falling to pieces, inhabited now by the white animals of the tundra that will grow less white over time as the winters shorten. The time will come when no buildings remain; all will be fully absorbed into their surroundings. Other things, too, will have changed. Bears will have twin sexual organs; darker in colour and reduced in number, they’ll feast on abundant prey in winter and summer, a new summer that will stretch out like the shadow of a sun that slips by between two green nights. It’s a nauseating spectacle, as the water of the bay swells with a brilliant blue spreading all around like napalm, enthusiastically flooding everything the people around here have fallen into the habit of calling “their land.”
As much as I love the anger and passion of a book like James Bradley’s Ghost Species or the harrowing climate catastrophes collected in McSweeney’s 2040 A.D., it pleases me no end that there is space in this sub-genre for books as lyrical and strange as Fauna.
This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.
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