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Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer

Review by Elizabeth, Public Services

One dull morning as security consultant “Jane Smith” leaves the coffee shop in Jeff Vandermeer’s Hummingbird Salamander, a barista hands her an envelope. No one knows who left it for Jane the night before, but Jane takes it anyway, welcoming the turn away from her routines of work and husband and child, and a world that is creeping into pandemic and disorder.

The envelope holds a key, an address, and a number that lead Jane to a disused storage unit at the edge of nowhere. The unit holds only a taxidermied hummingbird- a secret message to Jane from an unknown source. Research using work resources uncovers faint clues leading to a taxidermied salamander, one quite different from the kind her brother searched for on their farm when they were kids. The mystery of the taxidermied, extinct animals consumes Jane’s attention and makes her feel alive, as does an attempt at a one-night-stand with a stranger at a work conference. At odd moments, Jane is troubled by childhood memories and regrets: Anger at her abusive grandfather, Shot. Mixed feelings about her crazy mother and her estranged father. Missing Ned, who drowned decades ago. Other things she tries not to think about.

Jane learns that the hummingbird and salamander are connected to a dead ecoterrorist named Silvina, who was the daughter of a ruthless Argentinian industrialist. As Jane investigates, events of which she is unaware are set in motion; too slowly, she comes to fear that someone is watching her house from the dark shadows in the yard. And someone, possibly or probably a different person, is following her. She should let this go, because why should she care? This has nothing to do with her, but it does make her blood race.

As some of Jane’s co-workers come to harm, Jane fears for her husband and daughter, to whom she has said nothing about any of it. She leaves them behind with no word, knowing no reasonable explanation is possible. Injured and alone, Jane follows the route Silvina took down the west coast of the United States, seeking traces left behind. Despite precautions, Jane acquires a stalker with whom she has annoying text conversations that tell her nothing important or true. She is certain this man was deeply involved with Silvina; at any rate, he knows more than he will share, and she fears he will kill her if he finds her again, no matter what he says.

Hummingbird Salamander is an engrossing character study; the beauty of the story lies not only in the depth of the exploration of “Jane”, but also in author Vandermeer’s deliberate use of language to lead and mislead the reader through the story’s events, people, and places. This is not a fast read or a conventional genre story; it is not exactly science fiction, literary fiction, a mystery, or suspense fiction, but rather a pleasing subtle blend. Recommended for fans of literary science fiction, such as the work of Margaret Atwood or Max Brooks.

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