Hummingbird Salamander

Jeff VanderMeer

Hummingbird Salamander
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Hummingbird Salamander

Jeff VanderMeer

Another winter morning in a city in the Northwest.

Where, exactly? I won’t tell you.

Who am I? I won’t tell you. Exactly.

But you can call me Jane.

Jane Smith, if that helps.

I’m here to show you how the world will end.

‘Jane Smith,‘ a software manager in her late forties who lives in the Pacific Northwest receives an envelope with a key to a storage unit inside. In the storage unit is a taxidermied hummingbird and salamander. Along with a list of five more animals, signed ‘Love, Silvina.’ The hummingbird and salamander turn out to be among the most endangered species in the world, the taxidermy commissioned by a notorious wildlife trafficking criminal. The message is from the daughter of an Argentine industrialist who has recently died, someone who became radicalized and is thought of in some quarters as an eco-terrorist. Jane does not know Silvina and has never met her, but just by taking the items from the storage unit has set events into play over which she has no control.

Against a very near-future backdrop of severe global warming events and domestic and foreign instability due to predatory government actions and an intrusive security state.

Why me? This was the question that tore at me, made me unable to sleep. Why me? What was so special about me…?

“You’re trying to destroy my life.”

“No. I’m trying to save your life.”


‘Jane Smith’ is a security consultant wary of search engines, who mistrusts all her colleagues, has disabled her smart-fridge as a privacy precaution, and keeps an emergency ‘go-bag’ in her gym locker even though she isn’t entirely sure why. So when she is handed the key to a storage unit holding only a taxidermied hummingbird and a cryptic note, she surprises herself by trying to trace this mysterious object to its source.

Jane’s increasingly stark indifference as she loses more and more of her life and health to her obsessive search begins to mirror the loss of stability in the world around her – pandemics and natural disasters are mentioned as though they were passing inconveniences, political unrest is an increasingly common hazard to be dodged, and people grow more and more accustomed to the green-grey tint the sky has taken on.

Hummingbird Salamander is Anthropocene fiction delivered via the medium of psychological thriller, and it thrums with oppressive paranoia. Come for the coldly dreamlike prose, witness the nerve-racking descent into violent chaos, and make sure you stay for the uncompromising and cathartic release of the book’s finale.

There is great beauty here, wrapped deeply in layers of deftly portrayed tension and alienation. VanderMeer’s novel meets the depths of climate despair with important questions: what might it take to make humanity recognise our effect on the world and work to change it? If, like the salamander, we were more permeable to our environment and its warning signs, how would we live differently? What can humans learn from a migratory hummingbird that has any bearing on our modern lives? And why do we prevent ourselves from caring?

Ele Jenkins is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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