Ramona Ausubel’s The Last Animal begins by situating its characters in the Age of Extinction—a bleak but accurate name for our era. In September 2019, the Guardian launched a series with the same name to “report on our current catastrophic species loss and examine solutions to tackle the wildlife extinction crisis.” The project was meant to last a year, but it’s still going, and for good reason. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, some 28 percent of assessed species are threatened with extinction. Hundreds die off every year. These realities are so overwhelming that it can be difficult to conjure hope, let alone solutions.
But hope is not passive, and it is the work of maintaining it that underlies much of Ausubel’s novel.
Climate anxiety—or perhaps, more specifically, ecological grief—looms large over the family at the center of the narrative: Jane, a graduate student in paleobiology, and her daughters, 15-year-old Eve and Vera, who is nearly 13. As the book begins, the three of them are on a scientific expedition to Siberia; it is about a year after Sal, Jane’s husband and the girls’ father, has died.
The journey is difficult, involving multiple flights as well as a daylong barge ride down a river so thick with mosquitoes that they rise “off the water like a living fog.” But Jane and her children are no strangers to such intense travel. Sal was a science journalist, his work taking him—and his family—all over the world, which means that for Eve and Vera, staying in one place has always been the exception rather than the rule.
The family’s voyage is part of an ambitious project—based on a real scientific endeavor—whose ultimate goal is to breed woolly mammoths, presently extinct, and return them to the Arctic Circle in order to shore up the permafrost, which stores carbon in the ground. In a sense, Jane, along with her male professor and a postdoc named Todd, is on a mission to save the world.
Yet saving the world from the ravages of man-made climate change is a long, slow process, and while the expedition yields an exciting discovery—Vera and Eve find a fully intact baby mammoth preserved in the ice—it is soon over. Back at home in Berkeley, Jane, a rare woman in her field, is relegated once more to taking notes and filling in spreadsheets for her male colleagues. When an opportunity arises to do the impossible and impregnate an actual elephant with mammoth-ish embryos, Jane jumps at it with Eve’s urging and despite Vera’s reservations.
Ausubel has long been brilliant at conveying the strange and improbable alongside the beautiful specifics of the mundane. The Last Animal feels haunted by exhaustion both literal and existential and the dreamlike quality that accompanies such fatigue. During the journey to Siberia, Vera—the only character whose interiority Ausubel consistently reveals—is “broken by tiredness. She was not a person anymore but a hunger for sleep.” Upon returning to Berkeley, she is “so jet-lagged that her brain was its own fog machine.” Later in the book, Jane finds herself similarly afflicted; caring for an animal that will not eat, she is so delirious with lack of sleep that she instinctively exposes her breast as if she might nurse it.
Motherhood and its challenges—exhaustion among them—are central to the novel, but not always in expected ways. Recently widowed as she is, Jane is trying to navigate the new terrain of single parenthood while attempting to breathe life into an extinct creature so that her daughters might have a future. Vera and Eve, in the meantime, are repeatedly forced to accompany their working and preoccupied mother, even as they often feel bereft of her care. In her emotional absence, they support and raise each other, much as they always have; traveling the world with their parents has left them little time or space to develop other relationships.
Despite the small family’s unending grief—for Sal, for the future—there is hope here too. Hubristic or not, Jane’s work on the de-extinction of woolly mammoths represents an act of hope. So, too, Vera’s love of baking, a pastime to which she turns whenever she can. Eve, projecting the hard shell of teenagerdom, tries to live in the moment, the future be damned. But all three care for one another, and their conversational dynamics, in-jokes, and conflicts demonstrate a love that is both felt and acted upon.
To describe too many of the twists and turns here would be to diffuse some of the novel’s magic, but The Last Animal is a wildly plotted romp as well as a deeply felt story of family, grief, and the hope to be found in continuing to live, even under the cloud of an uncertain future.•