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Hummingbird Salamander
by Jeff VanderMeer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 10, 2021

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Jeff VanderMeer frequently uses environmentalism in his plots. Earlier work has tended to the abstract, even an hallucinatory style. His latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, is more of a thriller, but it is hardly straight-forward. The narrator is the quintessence of unreliability, weaving her tale more in stream-of-consciousness mode rather than just giving us the facts. She won't even give us her real name ("Call me Jane Smith"), and the same for the other characters ("let's call them [X]"). She is an analyst working for a firm that provides cyber-security to corporations. She is married, with one daughter, but I never got the impression her family was that important to her. That may be because her family life growing up was traumatic, with an abusive grandfather, and a father and mother that were ineffective in curbing the abuse. Her older brother died in his teens, supposedly of accidental drowning, but she was sure her grandfather had killed him. All of her childhood memories are interspersed in a random, sporadic manner, and as with many other revelations, it's easy to assume we aren't getting the full truth.

We know at the start Jane is telling the story from the end. She even says it is likely she will be dead whenever someone finds her journal. Working in security, it is possible she occasionally daydreamed of being a spy, or at least a detective. She gets the chance to be that for real when she receives a mysterious note, handed to her by a barista at her favorite coffee shop. Inside the envelope is a key, an address, and a number - 7. She arrives at the address to find it is a storage facility, and is surprised to find her name is on the access list. Inside Unit 7 she finds a cardboard box sitting on a chair, and inside the box a taxidermied hummingbird, and a note: "Hummingbird .. .. .. Salamander Silvina." She doesn't know a Silvina, and at first assumes it is a prank pulled by one of her co-workers. Definitely not a friend, since it becomes apparent she has no friends, not even among her co-workers. Almost anyone else would have shrugged at that point, walked away and never thought of it again. But "Jane" is nothing if not curious, so she takes the box and decides to investigate, determine who Silvina may be. She thinks to herself, "Oh, Silvina, thank you for not scrawling 'find me' at the bottom of your note. Thank you for knowing that was not necessary."

This is set in some undetermined future, one of environmental collapse and rapid dying off of species. She knows hummingbirds are extinct, or nearly so, and that traffic in wildlife, live or dead, is highly illegal. Yet it is not the hummingbird that helps her make the decision to investigate, but she doesn't reveal for many chapters why the salamander was the key. She determines the note was probably from Silvina Vilcapampa, Argentinan-born daughter of a rich industrialist, whose worldwide holdings included mining and manufacturing, but possibly also less than legal activities, maybe wildlife trafficking and toxic waste dumping. Silvina had broken from her family, even stole from them, to pursue environmental activism. What doesn't seem right to Jane are the indications Silvina eventually moved into eco-terrorism, possibly even bio-terrorism. She figures that info is false, planted by her father and others to discredit her, and deflect from their own culpability. Initials on the bottom of the base that holds the hummingbird leads her to a taxidermist in New York, who scares her off with a gun. She suspects she's being followed and surveilled, gets threatening texts on her phone, even a burner phone which no one should have been aware of. All of this is intriguing, but the manner in which Jane narrates the story is irritating. Why does she keep going back to childhood memories? Is it a way of visualizing herself in Silvina's situation?

Silvina is also unreliable. I could tell you several very short phrases she could have added to her note that would have helped Jane immensely, but I won't to avoid spoilers. Also, if Silvina had given a few more clues the story would have been much shorter. I suspect I might appreciate it more on re-reading, but right now it's mostly frustrating. A famous T. S. Eliot quote sums it up, but is likely to be a spoiler too: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Interpret that as you will.


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Jeff VanderMeer

April 5, 2021

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