Seven years ago, Harvard professor and resurrection biologist George Church made headlines around the world when he announced that we already have the technical know-how to bring back Neanderthals, and that nothing wanted but an “extremely adventurous female human” to act as surrogate mother. Donna Mazza’s second novel takes us into the mind of just such a female, although the woman at the heart of Mazza’s story seems less motivated by the adventure of science than an impossible craving to sacrifice her humanity.
The book is set in a not-too-distant future in which human cloning is apparently legal. Stacey, already a mother of two, and her partner, Isak, have volunteered for the Neanderthal program of a local biotech company. After the successful birth, mum and dad are sent back to the suburbs to raise their bundle of Pleistocene joy as if she were a normal child. Of course, explain the sinister boffins, they must keep shtum about the project. If anyone asks why their child has such large eyes and such a mighty brow ridge, the parents should say she has a rare genetic condition. Which, when you think about it, she does.
The book is narrated by Stacey, which can be exhausting because her mood throughout is dominated by dark forebodings and incipient panic. At times she behaves the way any sleep-deprived mother of a unique and vulnerable child might; at other times, however, she is possessed by a kind of greedy amazement, like someone who has stumbled on a rare artefact and wants to keep it all to herself: “Sometimes I feel as if I am watching her unfold through a fissure in time. It’s as if a crack has appeared, shining a ray of light onto her broad, bare feet. We are the first to witness her walking, those first uncertain steps.” Her troubling and obscure dream is to crawl back through that fissure and to hide in the light of those distant origins.
Fauna is stylishly written but, occasionally, you wish that mother and child could be seen through someone else’s eyes, such as the coolly intelligent older daughter’s. Stacey’s point of view is fractured and narrowed by her mental anguish, which limits the book’s depth and reach. Nonetheless, as a psychological portrait of a mother desperate to protect her daughter, oppressed by constant surveillance and on the edge of nervous collapse, Fauna has a tragic plausibility.
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Donna Mazza, Fauna".
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