This past spring a science museum in Amsterdam unveiled an unusual exhibit: a giant meatball created with DNA from the woolly mammoth. The work of an Australian cultured-meat company called Vow, it may be the most whimsical of several mammoth revival ventures now underway, most in the US or Russia. Hoping to promote the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat, Vow introduced snippets of the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin—one of the proteins that creates muscle—into sheep stem cells and grew them into workable quantities of “meat” containing genes of both animals. The process took about two weeks.

Thanks to CRISPR gene-editing technology and a flush of new funding, de-extinction efforts are developing so rapidly that they’re (almost) no longer science fiction. Mammoths—or, more precisely, cold-adapted Asian elephants with sections of mammoth DNA—may be grazing the tundra grasses before the end of this decade. This is a possibility explored in Ramona Ausubel’s latest novel, The Last Animal, about a rogue graduate research scientist who sneaks mammoth embryos out of the lab. The conservation argument advanced by the “de-extinction wackos,” as one of Ausubel’s characters calls them, is that reintroduction of mammoths to the arctic steppes where their ancestors roamed would help restore grasslands and preserve permafrost—one of the greatest stores of trapped carbon on the planet.

Loss and recovery are also the emotional poles that Ausubel’s main characters—the scientist, recently widowed, and her two teenage daughters—move between. Her protagonist is the younger daughter, thirteen-year-old Vera. Since her father died in a car accident, Vera has longed for safety and rootedness; he

had already softened in Vera’s memory…. All his colors faded into a bluish lavender. That’s how you lost someone—first in body, then their edges and furies and mistakes went. Her father had been gone only a year. What would disappear next she did not know.

Her sadness and anxieties settle on the climate crisis—“the Age of Extinction,” as the first line of the book has it. While her sister, Eve, two years older, thinks it’s too late to make a difference, Vera is determined to work for the planet’s future. She joins a climate action group at her school and paints posters for a march in San Francisco, “thirsty to do something real, something good even if it was microscopic and meaningless.” Climate grief blends into the loss of her father; she constantly patrols her familial boundaries, alert to the subtlest signs of abandonment or disloyalty.

The girls’ mother, Jane, a graduate student in paleobiology, is a research assistant in a Berkeley lab at the forefront of mammoth recreation. Along with coffee-making and other gender-coded lab tasks, she tends a few frozen embryos in wait for an artificial womb (a technology far more complex than gene-splicing and apparently still in the distant future).

Her late husband, Sal, a science journalist, inspired her love for the Pleistocene, but he left only a small life insurance policy; everything has fallen on Jane’s shoulders. Now she has been chosen to join a summer research expedition in eastern Siberia, on the hunt for new specimens. Accustomed to traveling the world with Sal and her daughters, Jane brings Vera and Eve along, although the girls view their inclusion with mordant humor: “Woman, Supposed to Be Invisible, Brings Obnoxious Children on Science Trip, Ruins Everything.”

The novel opens on their journey across six time zones from Moscow to Yakutsk, followed by a twenty-hour barge ride to the East Siberian Sea. The girls are primarily a nuisance for the research team until they wander off one day and start digging idly at a bone-studded frozen cliffside. In moments, they come across something long and covered with skin and fur: the trunk of an intact baby mammoth. From this point, “it felt like a rescue mission more than a discovery and they did not stop but dug until their fingers were soaked and frozen. It was perfect. It was sad and beautiful and perfect.”

For a shining moment, Jane—who had been relegated to recordkeeping for the expedition—can be “seen as a colleague, spoken to as a scientist.” Through the reflected glory of her girls’ lucky find, “she might overcome her gender, her children, after all.” She is allowed, under the guidance of one of the men, to be the first to slice into the thawing carcass and collect specimens for testing. But when Jane returns to Berkeley, the head of the lab hands off a promising hypothesis of hers—that ring patterns in tusks might hold important information, like tree rings—to a male peer to pursue. The reward for her ingenuity is an invitation to a donor gala at a science museum, where she meets a sympathetic stranger—an older Englishwoman named Helen, who lives on a private animal park near Lake Como full of exotic species, including a pet Asian elephant of breeding age.


There’s a directness to Vera’s speech that can make this novel feel like children’s literature at times, spelling out what the reader has already intuited. She suggests that Jane and Helen work together to create a woolly mammoth. “Everyone laughed.” But the reader is not convinced by this false hesitation; we are soon gliding (or bumping or careening, depending on the moment) through the familiar landscape of plot-driven fiction, with its rising action and obstacle course. The Last Animal is Ausubel’s most conventional book, lacking the fantastic or grotesque little jolts that characterize her short stories and her two earlier novels. (It’s no surprise that, asked by an interviewer about influences, she said her list included “everything George Saunders has ever written.”) Only once in this novel does she deploy her stunning gift for the narrative swerve—in this case, a sudden act of adolescent high jinks that releases a current of surreal comedy running behind the main action.

Ausubel specializes in a heightened realism that often shades into fabulism, especially in her short fiction—a territory familiar to readers of Karen Russell or Miranda July. She can make a whole story from a comic conceit, such as a Cyclops’s online dating profile, a device that wouldn’t satisfy without some degree of psychological truth. She’s drawn to metamorphosis, sometimes sparked by a figure of speech. (What could one make of a “chest of drawers,” for example, or the offer to give your hand to your beloved?) Her poetic, inventive first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us (2012), was based on family stories told by her Romanian Jewish grandmother, whose parents were separated during World War I and had vastly different experiences, her mother fleeing pogroms and feeding her children tree bark and her father ending up a POW in Sardinia, eating pasta and enjoying the beach. Ausubel chose to move the action of the book forward in time to 1939 so that she could only “gesture toward the war” and rely on readers’ knowledge to fill in the rest—a decision that enhances the fable-like quality of the novel, its unmooring from history.

In the middle of a rainstorm, a group of Jewish families in northern Romania gather to hear, with reluctance, the bad news from outside their isolated farming village: declarations of war, a call for pogroms. When the rain recedes, they come upon a traumatized woman in the mud of the riverbank, not a flood victim but an escapee from a burned town, her family tortured and killed. They bring her to the house of the village healer and try to warm her. Since there had never been a lasting home for their people, never safety or peace, the stranger suggests that the villagers remake the world from the beginning—an imperfect creation, like the one they are escaping, but at least their own. They vote on which words and concepts exist in this new world: God and cabbages and love, yes, but “no such things as dead children,” the stranger insists, “no such thing as burned up.”

“Though we all knew that no incarnation of the world had ever been safe for us, no matter how beautifully God had tried to build it,” recounts eleven-year-old Lena, “we allowed ourselves to believe in this one.” The villagers cease contact with the outside world, which, for a time, forgets they exist. Some families are reconfigured as the village starts over, a kind of restorative justice to correct the miseries of the old life. To Lena’s shock, her parents give her away to a childless couple, and her new mother madly insists that Lena, too, must begin again, and accept the pretense that she is a newborn, a tabula rasa for her needy adoptive parents. That Lena embodies her community’s larger project of remaking, its gradual acquisition of words and ideas and its self-protective distortions of painful truths, is only one of the paired or nested elements in the novel; the precise language and patterning of almost all Ausubel’s work set off her humor and weirdness.

Her penchant for child narrators is another way of coming at things anew, allowing for fresh interpretation, for the unexpected. Siblings recur—that slant-mirrored relationship that defines us and tests our fitness for the outside world. In “Snow Remote,” from her collection A Guide to Being Born (2013), a teenage boy sits on the other side of a shower curtain while his twin sister bathes, begging her to describe what her body feels like so that he can improve his phone sex with an unattainable older woman. For much of The Last Animal, the central bond is between Vera and Eve—Vera is “a sister first, a daughter second”—while Jane struggles to establish herself professionally and as the family provider. Their sisterhood is closely observed; Eve, well into her teen rebellion, is the more willful and childish of the two, the one most likely to stick a knife down a toaster. Ausubel may have missed an opportunity by making Vera, the steadier sister, her protagonist.


Parents are mostly absent or incompetent in Ausubel’s writing—perhaps the hardest-working fairy-tale trope in literature. But neglected children don’t only increase the narrative potential for odd encounters and peril; they reflect our essential aloneness, our fear (sometimes our hope) that our family will not always contain us. In the story “Fresh Water from the Sea”—from her fourth book, Awayland (2018)—the main character’s mother literally fades away: “Where she had once been a precise oil painting, now she was a watercolor.” One of Ausubel’s earliest published stories, “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations,” explores a boy’s rage at his self-absorbed parents, who absurdly mishandle every aspect of the death and burial of the family cat and flaunt their ongoing hunger for each other. “‘This here,’ my mother says,” gesturing at the boy’s father, “‘is what made you. You don’t even exist without this.’”

In The Last Animal, Ausubel presses on all the fault lines of parent–child relationships. Jane’s insistence on keeping the girls with her on her illicit mammoth-breeding venture draws the three of them into a close conspiracy but cannot comfort Vera or restrain Eve. On impulse, Eve savages one of her mother’s future experiments with an act so startling that I won’t spoil it here, except to say that it works, in part—like many of Ausubel’s effects—by mirroring another crucial feature of the novel.

Ausubel’s elegant prose is skillfully stripped back in this book, the better to suit her headlong plot and do justice to the ethical issues thrumming behind the action. She relies as much on structure as character, setting up balancing elements wherever possible, including a contrast between the glamorous Helen, who offers her pet elephant for Jane’s breeding project, and earnest, self-doubting Jane. Whether Helen is the enemy—complete with a Bond-villainess vintage speedboat and a clutch of glowering servants—remains unclear, although Ausubel gives her an exculpatory line near the end: “Not all old women who do what they want are witches.”

While waiting to hear whether the embryo transfer has worked, Jane and the girls return to Berkeley—an odd caesura that gives them all an opportunity to more fully process the loss of Sal. Vera thinks about the rising oceans, about witnessing, perhaps, the end of the world:

She had been raised to imagine greatness, difficult and brave work, but she mostly wanted something steady….

Eve asked out loud, “What will be the next thing to go?” They both understood that losing was in the music of being. Sometimes melody, sometimes chorus.

Sexual politics forms a central conflict in The Last Animal but sometimes feels overplayed. Jane and her daughters see her sex as an almost insuperable career obstacle. Women have clearly not achieved parity in the sciences, but enough have broken through—including, as it happens, the pioneers of CRISPR, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—that Jane might reasonably imagine she could advance elsewhere. The most striking example of patriarchal oppression in the novel is not Jane’s work situation but Vera’s memories of attending schools all over the world with Eve,

where they had to work out the maze of social expectations and vocabulary and whether it was all right for girls to speak in class and whether it was all right for girls to make eye contact with teachers and whether it was all right for girls to wear pants or all right to wear skirts and which route was safest to walk to and from school.

These tiring risk-reduction protocols are so ingrained for many of us that we no longer think to question them. Thirteen is the perfect age to notice.

Ausubel’s own family tree is full of artists, writers, and scientists, including her paternal uncle, the environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel, whom she thanks in the acknowledgments for keeping her informed on “all things mammoth,” and her father, an environmental entrepreneur who founded an heirloom seed company. Her maternal great-grandmother Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpted Bird Girl (1936), a statue that many readers would recognize from the cover of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the 1970s the Shaw family estate, Ragdale, on Chicago’s North Shore, was established as an art colony by Ausubel’s grandmother, the poet Alice Hayes.

Her mother’s family fortune, which evaporated before Ausubel was born, inspired her second novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (2016). For one of her main characters, Edgar, the son of a steel magnate, “being rich had felt…like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool. So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.” She had originally conceived of the book as a second part to her first novel; the two halves would have contrasted her paternal lineage among Eastern European Jewry with the “fallen American aristocracy” on her mother’s side.

Born and raised in Santa Fe, Ausubel lived for a year after high school in Berkeley with her artist mother and her younger sister, feeling adrift. The Last Animal, dedicated to them, may draw on that lonely Berkeley year. By the time she graduated from the MFA fiction program at UC Irvine, in 2008, she had written most of the stories of gestation and transformation that would become A Guide to Being Born. Ausubel has spoken of her fascination with pregnancy: “It is the intersection of the past and the future, the place where different lives merge, and rare in human existence, it is something with an exact beginning.” The most celebrated of these early fictions, “Atria,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2011, largely sidesteps the question of who impregnated teenage Hazel (both options are grim) and focuses instead on her conviction that she’s growing something nonhuman: A wolf cub? A giraffe? The reader’s anxiety as Hazel, left alone after the delivery, begins to introduce her seal cub to water demonstrates Ausubel’s remarkable control, and how quickly her whimsy can sharpen to a point.

The mammoth revival in The Last Animal offers her an opportunity to go further than the speculative hybrids of “Atria.” From the moment Jane and the girls learn the elephant is pregnant, the project’s success is fragile and provisional; the pregnancy may fail, or an immune response may kill the “host,” or she may reject the newborn. Its birth alone, after an eighteen-month gestation, is a scientific triumph, but seeing her mother doting on the newborn creature (named Pearl, for her nub of a tusk), Vera feels “overwhelmingly sad. For the mammoth that woke up on a planet to which it did not belong…for all of searching, hoping humanity.” Even if the surrogate accepts the calf, its “mother”—its entire culture—is a long-departed tribe.

Helen’s animal park features a small natural history museum whose star attraction is a mammoth skeleton. One morning Pearl is found—ill and hungry, having wandered away from her enclosure—seeking comfort among the bones of her ancestor: “the architecture of something familiar with none of the warmth.” Aware, perhaps, that Pearl’s subjectivity is beyond our ken, Ausubel grants her the dignity of not anthropomorphizing her. Whatever she means for those who dreamed her into life, she is, after all, an animal, with her own destiny and allotted life span. “Woolly mammoths,” Vera muses. “They happen to be extinct, but they’re otherwise not any weirder than what’s still alive.”