Alissa York’s Fauna is an extraordinary novel. A departure from the author’s previous, more historically minded works (including 2007’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Effigy), Fauna takes place in the hidden, wild corners of present-day Toronto, where the titular animals are rats and raccoons, coyotes and cats, injured foxes by the roadside and dead birds at the bases of office towers.
The book’s human characters live on the fringes of urban society. Edal, on stress leave from her job as a federal wildlife officer, encounters a homeless teenager gathering dead birds from the sidewalk. The girl flees upon approach, and Edal follows her to a curious dwelling on the edge of the Don Valley, where sick and injured creatures (and people) are taken in and cared for.
Realizing that the makeshift shelter violates wildlife regulations, Edal is conflicted about her association with the group, and must hide her official role from the others, whose backstories of loss and trauma York reveals over the course of the novel. When mutilated coyote carcasses begin appearing in the ravine – clearly the work of a vigilante hunter – the group must acknowledge the limits of its power to protect the city’s fauna, and Edal is prodded to put her life back together again.
York does not use Toronto as a mere backdrop; her novel evokes the city with remarkable specificity. The Don Valley is at the centre, with its roaring traffic, winding river, and incongruous wilderness teeming with life. The valley is bordered on one side by the affluent Cabbagetown neighbourhood and a city-run farm, on the other by a Chinatown whose alleys are prime scavenging grounds for raccoons. The story tracks its characters through these neighbourhoods, back and forth across the Riverdale Footbridge, and into outlying areas, creating a picture of Toronto that bears scant resemblance to the city many of us think we know.
York pulls off a daring feat by having the animals themselves narrate a few passages, managing a most unsentimental portrayal – these animals are vermin, and it’s a dog-eat-rabbit world out there. But it’s also a world whose connections to literature are strong: Fauna calls to mind works such as Watership Down, The Jungle Book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Wild Animals I Have Known.
York’s exceptional novel shows that books, like cities, are enlivened by their wild populations.