There is something enthralling about any variation on the phrase “if you are reading this, I am probably dead.” The reader is immediately drawn into the story, immediately aware of the stakes, immediately hooked. Florida writer Jeff Vandermeer knows this: his stunning new novel “Hummingbird Salamander” begins with the line, “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this.”
The speaker, and narrator of the novel, is a security consultant: “A kind of scam, but also like detective work — figuring out how companies worked instead of how they said they worked. Found the security gaps. Sold the fear of security gaps. There would always be security gaps.” She won’t reveal her true identity to the reader. “But you can call me Jane. Jane Smith. If that helps,” she writes, before adding, “I’m here to show you how the world ends.”
By the novel’s second page, Jane has been given an envelope by a barista in her regular coffee shop. The envelope contains a key, an address and a message: “If you received this, I am already gone. You’re on your own. But not alone.”
Jane is as hooked as the reader by that message and visits the address, where she finds a taxidermied hummingbird in a dank, long-term storage facility, along with a clue to the location of a taxidermied salamander. And with that, her normal life ends. She finds herself not only on the trail of the salamander, but on that of Silvina, heiress to an Argentinian industrial empire and an eco-terrorist with a fanatical following. Every action she takes, though, every question she asks, seems to set a reaction in motion. In short order, Jane is pursued by forces who, it seems, will stop at nothing to stop her quest. Her life, her stability, her family and her coworkers are put in jeopardy, seemingly by the simple act of speaking a name: Silvina.
And, honestly, that’s just the beginning.
The sheer delight of a new novel from Jeff Vandermeer, whose previous books include “Borne,” “Dead Astronauts,” and “Annihilation,” which won the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, is that you never know what you’re going to get. With “Hummingbird Salamander,” he delivers a crackling page-turner, a canny eco-thriller cut from the same cloth as such 1970s cinematic classics as “The Conversation” and “Three Days of the Condor.” There’s one crucial twist, though: Jane knows she’s not being paranoid. She knows there are forces at work in the shadows; she has been one. Her skills and insights, impressive though they are, only take her so far before she is brought back to an almost primal level of instinct and reaction.
This is a key shift for a novel rooted in species extinctions, climate change, the interlocking nature of the past and the sheer impossibility of the future. As the technological and cultural shells around Jane crumble, she is drawn into a deeper connection with the natural world, an increased sympathy, and identification, with Silvina. It’s a shift readers of the novel also experience, a deeper communion with a vanishing world, an invitation to action, a dark vision of potential consequences of inaction.
“Hummingbird Salamander” is a philosophical exploration and a warning, delivered in a package of sheer reading pleasure, the sort of book one will want to read in a single sitting.