Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer is excellently titled. The American author of speculative fiction is best known for his Southern Reach Trilogy, the first part of which was made into the movie Annihilation.
Set in an unnamed city in the Pacific Northwest, this latest novel loosely falls into the category of ‘eco-thriller’, starting in propulsive, breakneck style and rarely letting up.
The story is told by Jane (possibly not her real name), a security consultant and former wrestler, who receives a key to a storage unit in the mail. The key leads to a taxidermied hummingbird and clues to find a similar salamander. The clues have apparently been left by. Silvina, an alleged ecoterrorist and daughter of an Argentinian billionaire industrialist.
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While that may sound like glorious hokum, VanderMeer is utterly confident and convincing in his storytelling, as Jane gets sucked into a world of subterfuge, corruption and violence that she could barely have imagined. Following the clues despite herself, Jane descends down a rabbit hole that constantly makes her question everything she thought she knew about her life.
VanderMeer uses his story to examine humanity’s relationship with nature, with our own sense of identity, and with the spectre of climate change.
The key to all this is Jane’s voice. She is a long way from the standard sympathetic heroine of some fiction, a morally complicated and physically intimidating presence, someone who begins to face up to the truth in the wake of the revelations she uncovers.