Ask any young person what they think about climate change and the prognosis is likely grim. They’ll recall childhood science classes full of dire nature documentaries and summers that got warmer and warmer with each passing year. I am twenty-one years old and the idea that damage done by the climate crisis will soon be irreparable is not new to me, but that doesn’t make the reality of the situation any less haunting. Life is a constant balance of doing my part for the world and trying not to think too hard about the things I cannot change.
Perhaps for this reason Fauna (Coach House Books, 2020), Christiane Vadnais’s debut eco-fiction, managed to be both beautiful and terrifying, a love letter to mother nature and a warning to those who dare cross her.
Vadnais writes with a beautiful eloquence that brings her lush and terrifying world to life. Given the fresh, natural talent displayed in Fauna, it’s no wonder Radio-Canada named her as a young writer to watch in 2020. Equally impressive, the original novel was written in French and stunningly translated to English by the brilliant Pablo Strauss.
The dreamy tale—a series of short stories with interwoven characters and plots—takes place in the not-so-distant future in the town of Shivering Heights, which is ravaged by disastrous floods, polluted waters, and eerie mists. Worse yet, a parasite is infecting all forms of life, causing them to perish or evolve in horrific ways. Newcomer Laura is a biologist intensely dedicated to studying the affected species, but even she must learn to accept that the changing times means abandoning classifications and focusing on the present.
The horror of a greatly deteriorating landscape is only accentuated by Laura’s visceral and often clinical interpretations of the world around her. She perceives every aspect of her life—including motherhood—through a scientific lens and intersperses Latin titles throughout her musings. Laura herself is a force of nature. Thomas, a side-character we don’t get quite enough time with, describes her dancing as “a nuptial parade of some rare bird, the promise of another world shining in the black village night.” But even away from the microscope of the male gaze, Laura is as fierce and formidable as the land she inhabits, going so far as to give birth alone in the middle of a snowstorm, which in itself creates a cold and claustrophobic horror that I haven’t known since Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
While man vs. nature is the prevalent theme of the book, the tension never feels like a battle, but rather a warning: there is only room for those who are willing to evolve with the world. In the author’s words in the prologue, “to dream of a future where our species survives, we must get back to wilder times.” This is especially evident in the last few chapters of Fauna, which feature the far-too-familiar setting of a quarantine camp, where survivors are slowly picked off by the parasite that has infected them.
But, where the fear of death and disaster may loom, Vadnais is never outright cynical and even manages to paint a picture of hope. Despite the disasters that are unfolding, the world is not ending. It is changing. When a mother and son survive the parasite by sprouting wings and flying away, the reader is given a glimpse of a hopeful future. The central question of the book is whether or not it is time for humanity to get back to wilder times, and Vadnais rightly leaves the answer to that important question up to the reader.