Hummingbird Salamander (Book Review)

book reviewsenvironmentalism

I've been a fan of Jeff Vandermeer for a little over a decade. This means I am both biased (re: my baseline attitude towards the author and his works is favorable) and an insufferable hipster (re: I liked his books before he got fame, fortune, and a movie staring Natalie Portman.)

I first encountered Vandermeer's works at a formative age. His novels shaped my understanding of what a novel could be. I became aware of dimensions of description and prose that were sorely lacking in many of the other books I was reading at the time, yet present in his novels about beheaded meerkats and sentient mushrooms. Vandermeet is technically accomplished, and has used a variety of unusual devices to add atmosphere, characterization, and immersion to his works.

His latest, Hummingbird Salamander is an eco-thriller. Its language is relatively terse; its atmosphere, one of decay. The world is ours, except farther along its track into ecological catastrophy: it's filled with rotting institutions, unethical technology, devastation, and loss of havitats and species.

Our protagonist is "Jane," who does not share her real name with the reader. One day, her life as a security analyst for a faceless corporation is disrupted when she receives a key to a storage locker containing a taxidermied, extinct hummingbird.

"Jane" becomes obsessed with the bird and the deceased activist, Silvia, who led her to it, which ensnares her within a network of (un)savory characters who are very interested in wiping out all traces of Silvia's activities and existence.

But what did it mean that our clients resembled ghouls and grave robbers? I knew their families, or photos of their families. Stock sentiments for what looked almost like stock photos. I knew their habits when we took them out on the town. Their fears and doubts, revealed after martinis or boutique whisky. The altruistic pompous speeches about intent meant as much to reassure themselves as impress us. They shared the familiar things, the timeworn things that make up wanting to be comfortable with one another. (66)

As "Jane" learns more about Silvia, she becomes increasingly aware of and opposed to the contradictions in her world, allowing for a lot of observations. At one point, she picks up a copy of the real-life book Furtown. The quotations from this book are sickening and all the more disturbing because they are real, a tangible record of the mindsets that view other species' as valuless commodities without human harvesting.

“We, as the fur bearers of the world, in order to be enthusiastically welcomed to your fur industry, must live a determined double life. First, we exist as ‘an animal’ following the vigorous paths planned by nature. When we depart from this existence as ambassadors of the wild, we will then live our second glorious and commercial being … a life as a fur.”

Furtown is a clear link between our reality and the world of this fiction, but there are many others, such as prescient references to an upcoming pandemic, securitization and wealth inequality, and some interesting information on wildlife tracking.

Despite this well-painted large canvas, everything is focused through Jane, Silvia, and their interest in one another. Ultimately, the plot is a small-scale personal conflict. The revelations when they come are mostly believable in the context of the story. Forgotten memories resurface, and the conclusion is mostly satisfying.

Memory fucks with you when it tries to protect you. (87)

For me, my main issue with the novel is this: "Jane" and many of the other characters are really unsympathetic.

"Jane" is a jaded person who avoided intimacy and caring for others, while being content to deny many things out of her past. It is somewhat grating that when events affect people around her tragically, she shows very little remorse.

I could also do with fewer references to the fact that the protagonist is a large woman. I may be tall, but my inner narration isn't about how I'm an oafish giraffe who struggles to fit into vehicles... well, maybe it is sometimes, but that isn't the voice I would choose. (But, then again, if I was narrating a story about how I abandoned my spouse and child without remorse, maybe talking about my height would help serve as a distraction from my amoral actions...)

Moving back to the positives: Both this novel and its predecessor Dead Astronauts have a solid message that a single person can make a difference -- even if they don't see it in their lifetime. The changes that we make outlast us. Silvia's actions and writing ultimately do inspire others, such as Jane, and even if her motivations may fail purity tests, and even if her role may never be known, the result (at the very end of the book) will be lasting.

There are a lot of great things about this novel: fantastic writing, good suspense, and even a satisfying window into wildlife trafficking. It's not a new favorite of mine, and it wouldn't be the first Vandermeer I would recommend. But, I'm glad it exists and that I got to spend the time reading it.

Thanks for reading!

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