Reviewing one of your favourite writers is always a tricky task. You know the themes they are drawn to explore, their attempts to experiment and gamble with story or form, and VanderMeer is nothing if not a chameleon; the man has dipped into a wealth of different genres in his ambition to tell a fresh story.
Hummingbird Salamander is a stand-alone novel, with no knowledge of his past work necessary. Suffice to say, I tried to put my familiarity aside, and… I’m not convinced that was the best idea. It takes around 100 pages to find its feet, and I suspect I only persevered through trust; trust in the surreal, verdant talent that is ordinarily everywhere in VanderMeer’s prose and seemed so oddly absent here.
You might style Hummingbird Salamander an eco-thriller. Ecological transformation and collapse is rarely expressed so vividly and tenderly than in VanderMeer’s hands, and that extends to this novel. Yet I haven’t struggled this much to engage with a story in quite some time, and I think the reason why is straightforward.
Our gateway into the novel is ‘Jane Smith’ – a deliberately indifferent pseudonym the main character has adopted.
After receiving an unexpected envelope containing a key, Jane follows a string of clues that begin with a taxidermied hummingbird and ends with… Well, to say any more would ruin the fun. Shadowy figures, eco- terrorism, multinational corporations. The end of the world. But even though Vandermeer devotes a great amount of time on Jane, the reason why she embarks on such a quest – endangering the lives of all she loves – is absent.
The depths of her compulsion to follow the initial clues, the consuming obsessiveness, is drip-fed, undeveloped and consequently implausible. That might sound like a petty gripe when the story stakes – the collapse of the natural world – are so high. But in a first-person narrative, if the foundations of your character are missing from the start, well… VanderMeer is a mighty ventriloquist, but here his voice has missed the mark.