Hummingbird Salamander

By Jeff Vandermeer

Hummingbird Salamander, a novel by Jeff Vandermeer
Book details About the author

Following the news, it feels like the world is going to hell in a handcart. Put aside any politics and there is enough going on environmentally to worry most people. The idea of the oceans rising, smog filling the skies and animals dying out whilst the infrastructure of countries collapse, all have a bleak feeling to them. Similar to the feel of classic noir. A sense of darkness and inevitable violence. Setting a crime noir over the period a society begins to break down makes a twisted sense.  

Our protagonist is Jane Smith, not her real name as she is not keen in anyone finding her or any of the other people in the story. She led a normal life as a security consultant until the day a key arrived that opened a storage space. The only thing inside is a stuffed Hummingbird. When Jane picks up the bird her life changes forever, she is now a pawn in the game of a dead women. Jane must hunt down a stuffed Salamander if she is going to solve the mystery and save her way of life. But it may all be a little too late. 

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer has many of the traits of classic crime noir. The protagonist is untrustworthy and will not always tell the reader everything that is happening. She is also a broken women. Unlike many fictional investigators, she is not addicted to drugs or alcohol, but to ruining her own life. The choices that Jane makes through the book start off poorly and get worse. The instrument of her failure is her own actions. 

Like the title of the book suggests Hummingbird is a surreal book. It has the offbeat feel of a Chinatown or the work of Chuck Palahniuk. You cannot really believe what is happening as no one is telling the truth, even the narrator. This can make some of the book tricky to follow as the reader tries to piece together what is happening. The oddity is compounded by the near future setting. Jane lives a normal life not dissimilar to our own, but there are hints of the rest of the world falling to pieces with crops failing and migration happening even within America. 

It is not until the final act that you can call elements of the book true speculative fiction. This is far more a crime book. The use of a dying world is designed to add tone and reflect upon Jane’s own disintegrating existence. As her life begins to fall apart, the world around her also starts to split under the pressure of all the environmental and political pressures it is under. 

The core of Hummingbird is the crime story. If you can avoid some of the noise, there is an interesting narrative that would not look out of place in a dime novel from the 50s. Some of the actions may not make sense, but the crime narrative itself and conclusion are solid. This is a novel for a reader who likes to be challenged. The character of Jane is a complex one; not always the easiest to like and not always truthful. It is an uneasy and surreal take on crime noir.  

Written on 30th April 2021 by .

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