Skip to main content

Unlikely Animals


Unlikely Animals

Annie Hartnett, the acclaimed author of RABBIT CAKE, invites readers to Everton, New Hampshire --- a small town as full of heart as it is drama --- in UNLIKELY ANIMALS, a wildly compelling novel about life, death and what comes after.

When Emma Starling was born, the Upper Valley New Hampshire News published a front-page story about a baby with healing powers. The child of gorgeous, brilliant Clive and his stalwart fourth wife, Ingrid, Emma healed her mother’s midwife’s sciatica with only the touch of her pudgy little hands. Ever since then, she has been Everton’s pride and joy, even though Ingrid refused to let the town take advantage of her, citing the midwife’s theory that gifts like Emma’s --- charismata iamaton --- not only grow much more powerful in adulthood, but are unreliable at best before then.

A natural-born healer in every sense, Emma grew up to be Everton’s golden girl, earning straight A’s and heading off to Pomona College in California to become a doctor. However, as she trekked farther and farther from home, her healing powers, never all that strong to begin with, weakened to the point of disappearing. Suddenly her professional dream felt misaligned with her true ambitions.

"UNLIKELY ANIMALS is a wondrous, delightful and deeply layered novel about caretaking --- and the way it forces the evolution of relationships and priorities --- but it's also a beguiling, big-hearted story about life and death and what really matters in the end."

As the prodigal daughter returns home, Emma is dealt another blow: her beloved but cheating (and often disappointing) father is suffering from a mysterious brain illness that has left him with tremors, confusion and extremely vivid hallucinations, most notably dozens of small animals and the ghost of naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes, New Hampshire’s own Doctor Doolittle, who passed away in 1925. She also must wrap her head around what has happened to her brother, Auggie, whose struggles with addiction to heroin has drained the family’s finances and capacity for compassion.

If UNLIKELY ANIMALS sounds unlikely, then you clearly don’t know Annie Hartnett. She narrates the story from the (unlikely but marvelous) point of view of Everton’s Maple Street Cemetery residents, the ghosts of citizens both far-past and near-past, each of whom keep a close eye on the comings and goings of their living neighbors. As this Greek chorus of the dead watches on, Emma and her family are drawn closer and closer as their patriarch succumbs to his mysterious illness and increasingly intrusive hallucinations.

Simmering in the background is the wider issue of the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged the friendly, community-oriented town of Everton and likely has contributed to, if not caused, the disappearance of Emma’s childhood best friend, Crystal. When Emma learns that her father has been single-handedly running the search for Crystal, whom the police have written off as a runaway junkie, she is reminded of the tight-knit bonds that make Everton home. Still angry at him for his infidelity and ashamed of her own actions after high school, Emma finds new meaning in becoming his guardian, immersing herself in small-town living and continuing the search for Crystal.

It is difficult to call fiction about the opioid crisis hopeful and tender. Yet, without ever making light of the real-world implications of the issue, Hartnett has done just that. Ostensibly a novel about family and caretaking, UNLIKELY ANIMALS is so enmeshed in its small-town setting, so deeply informed by the real crises faced by rural towns, that it manages to feel raw and credible, despite its more magical elements.

The book is narrated by ghosts, but it seems impossible that Hartnett doesn’t have a direct line to the afterlife herself. How else could her characters be written with such strong, vivid and unforgettable voices, each at different stages of life and death and yet each so expertly rendered on the page? I laughed at the riotous commentary from the cemetery ghosts, I marveled at ailing Clive’s serene wisdom, and I was hopelessly drawn to poor Emma, tasked with wrangling them all. Hartnett has written all of her characters with love and delight, and her ability to keep them fresh and demanding of your attention marks her as an original and distinctive storyteller, the kind you only see once in a generation.

UNLIKELY ANIMALS is a wondrous, delightful and deeply layered novel about caretaking --- and the way it forces the evolution of relationships and priorities --- but it's also a beguiling, big-hearted story about life and death and what really matters in the end. Whether you stay for the deep, heartbreaking bond between father and daughter, the laugh-out-loud commentary of the ghosts, or the miracles of nature that Hartnett has so impressively crafted, there is no way that you will not love this instant classic.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 15, 2022

Unlikely Animals
by Annie Hartnett

  • Publication Date: February 28, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 059316024X
  • ISBN-13: 9780593160244