Mazza, Donna. Fauna. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020. RRP $29.99, 320pp, ISBN: 9781760876302
Miah De Francesch
Developed from her short story, ‘The Exhibit’, in Westerly 60.1, Donna Mazza’s latest release Fauna is a poignant novel that weighs the implications of mothering a child not entirely human with the lengths one will go to protect them. She turns a curious piece of short fiction into a novel filled with nuance, so close-to-home and plausible that I could believe its fiction as real.
Set in the near future, in the familiar, fauna-rich locale of southern Western Australia, working class Stacey and her husband, Isak, conceive a child via IVF. This baby, funded by a medical company known as LifeBLOOD, is a hope for humanity; a secret experimental trial where human sex cells are combined with cells from extinct creatures in the hope that the trial may bring the ability to cure illness and disease.
The deal works as such: in exchange for their participation in the project (including near-constant surveillance, regular developmental and behavioural updates, and control over the child’s diet, education and relationships), Stacey’s family will receive enough money to keep them afloat, to keep their home and send their children to school. Once the newborn is an adult, they will leave with LifeBLOOD® to be used for research.
The pregnancy and birth take their toll, and Stacey begins to grow cynical of LifeBLOOD and their investment in the arrangement:
And what do you think she is going to do when she grows up, if she actually does? […] She’s going to be doing whatever they want her to do. She’s their property—to use for making babies, or testing drugs or whatever else they plan for her. […] But she herself—she is of no real importance to anyone except me. Because I am her mother. (64)
This belief is what drives Stacey forward. It is the fuel behind her devotion and the power that enables her to ‘become the mother [her child, Asta] needs’ (130). Like many women do, Stacey fights back against the controls imposed on her body and life in moments of small resistance—by deviating from diet, delivering vague or dishonest reports, and refusing assigned help. An inevitability, however, exists on the novel’s periphery: a ‘whisper, growing more distorted for the lack of light it is given’ (275). The more Stacey tries to shove away the truth that Asta isn’t normal and that she will be taken away, the sharper its blade becomes. Fractures form in her health, wellbeing and relationships.
Stacey’s sacrifices come tightly wound with trauma for herself and her family; as depression and loss of self take their toll, pain ripples through to her husband and children. They uproot their lives to move south for the wellbeing of her and the baby, but this attempt at happiness is ‘built on falsehood’ (150); Stacey constructs a fantasy on the edge of the inevitable, living each day with the knowledge that it will all come crumbling down around her.
For her other children, Stacey’s obsessive desperation and shame over Asta plants the seed of resentment that grows through her subsequent neglect. For her husband, Stacey’s detachment from reality and increasingly irrational behaviour drives them further and further apart as Asta matures. Ultimately, she gives it all to protect her daughter: her life as she knew it; her body, now ‘tatty and soiled’ (290); her husband and children—she gives it all up for Asta.
Stacey’s journey through motherhood and the sacrifices it demands are so fundamental to Fauna: Asta’s unique circumstance ignites a primal instinct within Stacey to protect her young from the vultures that circle. While she is left ‘unravelling into warp and weft and knotted strands’, she ‘[gathers] together the pieces for [Asta], to shield her’ (290).
As we continue to bring children into a world facing potential extinction by way of climate, pandemic and/or war, where women still fight for agency and the exploitation of the vulnerable continues, Stacey’s turmoil over what may happen to her child is as understandable as it is heavy.
While at its core Fauna is about motherhood, Stacey’s journey (and those of her family) is also one of resilience, determination and survival. In reading Fauna I see echoes of the individuals in my life: of women who enact small resistances within the roles and behaviours expected of them by corporations, society and family; of people who live paycheck to paycheck and sacrifice parts of themselves to survive; and in my own mother, stronger than she believes, who has weathered and sacrificed much for her children and family, and continues to do so to ensure it remains whole.
Fauna is an interesting read that touches on many pressing contemporary anxieties, turning a quasi-science fiction piece into a believable, unsettling possibility. While it makes me appreciate the strength of everyone who gives birth and the trials they face, at points it left me wanting. While the writing is lyrical, it feels light on some aspects while repetitive and heavy on others. The foundation for Stacy and Isak’s decision to conceive in this way is so quickly brushed by that it doesn’t feel equivalent to an inevitable so absolute as losing your child. The descriptions of Stacey’s mindset and wellbeing, as well as of the Western Australian wildlife and fauna are frequent, while the lives and experiences of her family are few. Though the reasoning here is Fauna functions as a window into Stacey’s experience, there was much I felt frustrated with and wished was justified or described further.
The novel raises compelling discussion points on the ethics in scientific research, philosophical questions of morality such as Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, female agency, and the exploitation of the working class that would make it a perfect book club read. It may leave one questioning whether, as I did myself, if you knew your child would be taken from you less than a decade after its birth, would you bring them into your world? Could you? In light of Mazza’s provocative work, witnessing a mother sacrifice it all only to be left empty, alone and grieving, I cannot say I would.
Miah De Francesch is a writer and editor based in Perth, with particular interest in strange, fantastic worlds, interactive fiction and collaborative storytelling. She previously worked for Westerly Magazine and now works in communications. Find her words @miahdefran