Map of Blue Book Balloon

11 May 2021

#Review - Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Design by Jo Thomson

Hummingbird Salamander
Jeff VanderMeer
4th Estate, 15 April 2021
Available as: HB, 349pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy, and audio
ISBN(HB): 9780008299316

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Hummingbird Salamander via NetGalley. I also listened to the audiobook, which is excellently narrated by Lisa Flanagan.

In Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer has written both a taut, twisty thriller (which has fun with some of the conventions of that genre) and a spot-on exploration of climate change and environmental degradation.

In, I think, a near future, but one very close to our now (anyone remembering the last eighteen months will recognise the background chatter and rising fear caused by a novel pandemic). The narrator is Jane - she tells us that's not her real name - telling her story after the catastrophe that it represents for her and family. That's catastrophe at a personal level, on top of the pollution laden skies, societal breakdown and spreading chaos that occasionally intrude.

Jane has a husband and daughter, although we never learn their names. She has a safe, well-paid middle class job in the security industry. She also has a sense of detachment from all this - again, there are passing mentions of one-night stands while she's away at conferences ('Never knew the last names.') That detachment seems to be rooted in her distinctly strange childhood, growing up on a farm with an abusive grandfather ("Shot"), a feeble dad and a mother who had mental health issues. And then there's the brother. As the story proceeds, Jane interrogates her past, matching up moments, memories and bits of her current experience with it. Notably she tells us much more about this, and in particular her experience with Shots - who seems to have beaten her and her brother, but also taught her to wrestle - than she does about that husband and daughter: as to the latter, it's really a series of missed opportunities and disengagement and indeed, a reckless attitude to whether what she's doing might get them into danger.

What she's doing... well, in the best thriller/ noir style, that all begins with a mysterious message, leading to a trail of breadcrumbs. Exactly why the message is for Jane, and why she is so drawn to follow it up - with many, later, regretful comments about how things would have been different if she'd turned aside at that moment - well, that's rather unclear for most of the story. 

The message is from Silvina Vilcapampa, a rebellious but recently deceased member of a South American family which has becomes rich, basically, from environmental destruction: mining, logging, trafficking in endangered species, you name it. They are not only rich but scary, responding to Jane's interest with guns, muscle and threats. But this is a thriller, and the Vilcapampas are not the only players here, VanderMeer weaving together a delightfully baffling and tense array of subplots as Jane attempts to discern the truth, find out if any of the actors here are potential allies, and solve the riddle that Silvina has set. Whether she's motivated by insatiable curiosity, boredom with her middle-class, middle-aged life, or a desire to fill in gaps in her own history, was something I mused on right the way through this book. Jane seems obsessed with Silvina, and the taxidermied hummingbird that forms the first message form her, obsessed to the point of of researching Silvina's life and following her travels as set out in her journal. The overt reason for this would be to discover a secret she suspects has been hidden - and presumably that's also the reason the Vilcapampas are so keen to stop her - but she knows so little of what it might be that there must, surely, be more going on than that.

Either way, the story Silvina tells, and Jane's lived experience - especially her comparisons between the wild world she exploited as a child on the farm and the tame, habitat-sterilised land that has replaced it - are intimately bound up with what we are losing as the planet is degraded: the book calmly describes extinctions, environmental stress and climate change, treading a narrow line between discounting them and portraying a future that is completely without hope. As the last words, addressed to a time one hundred year in the future, have it: 'Is there a hummingbird, a salamander? Is there a you?'

Above all, despite the temptation to identify Big Business as the Big Villains in all this (and the Vilcapampas in particular are clearly no angels), the confusion and complexity of the world is acknowledged. The book notes the damage done by those who see themselves as on the right side, by the most unexpected people, the seductiveness of the "means to an end" argument, the sheer ambiguity of living - as well as the inertia of living, the way that catastrophe does not, on the whole, come about overnight. The societal breakdown portrayed here is real and certain (and encapsulated in those closing words, I think) but it's something that the privileged are able to ignore for most of the time even so.

Hummingbird Salamander is not, at times, an easy book but it is a rewarding one and it's one I'd recommend. As a listener to the audio, I found Lisa Flanagan's dry, slightly insinuating tones always  absorbing and at times chilling, brilliantly animating Jane's reserved affect: here is a woman with secrets, are you really sure you want to know them? It might change you...

For more information about Hummingbird Salamander, see the publisher's website here.

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