Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own. The story is told by the collective dead of a small New Hampshire town, with all the boundaries and unknowns that are inherent when your storytellers are buried in a cemetery.
The town’s dead are compelled to speak when Emma Starling returns home after a failed attempt at medical school. Although she was born with a natural ability to heal, the ability seems to have deserted her, leaving her unable to help her father, Clive, who has a brain disease. Despite his tremors, Clive is determined to solve the mystery of Emma’s best friend, Crystal, who has disappeared.
In many ways, Emma’s return home is messy; her brother is recovering from an opioid addiction, and Clive has begun to frequently and unpredictably hallucinate the existence of various animals, as well as the ghost of long-dead naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Layer in Emma’s new job as a substitute fifth grade teacher and other delightful moments, and you have the makings of a propulsive, inviting tale.
Emma and her family are endearing, charming characters to observe. They’re flawed, searching and struggling to be seen. Although Unlikely Animals deals with many issues—aging parents, the opioid epidemic, life in rural New England, family dreams and pressures—it does so with intention and care, never heavy-handedness. The magic of Hartnett’s novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness, and in sections that explore the myth and history of Baynes and his domesticated animals.
Ultimately, the story of Unlikely Animals belongs to the animals themselves, from Clive’s hallucinatory rabbits to Emma’s adopted dog. They remind us of wisdom beyond human experience, offering moments of clear-eyed joy as Emma finds her way and strives to help others do the same.