Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett
4/12/22; 368 pages
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett is a highly recommended
family drama and ghost story.
In the small-town Everton, New Hampshire, the ghosts from Maple Street Cemetery recall the birth of Emma Starling. Emma was said to be a natural born healer. Now at 22 years-old she has foregone medical school in California and is returning home, her healing touch gone. Her mother, Ingrid, talked her into returning, although she really had nothing else to do, because her father, Clive, is dying from a mysterious brain disease. Clive is hallucinating small animals as well as the ghost of naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Her younger brother, Auggie, is recovering from an opioid addiction and Emma's best friend from high school, Crystal Nash is missing. Emma ends up becoming a long-term substitute teacher for fifth graders at the elementary school.
The Greek chorus of the ghosts from Maple Street Cemetery chime
in throughout the novel with their thoughts, observations and
opinions concerning what is going on with the living members of
the community. This quirky, absurd family drama displays magic
realism while being funny, but also tragic and quite serious
concerning the opioid crisis befalling small towns everywhere. The
themes of family expectations, forgiveness, and acceptance merge
with the importance of friendships. And all of this is heralded in
some way by the ghosts.
The plot does move along quickly, but the wildly divergent and
numerous story lines could be a bit of a distraction. Naturalist
Harold Baynes was a real person and his ghost shares parts of his
life story in the novel. Hartnett has an author's note at the end
explaining this and the incorporation of the information into her
novel. The writing style was not especially to my taste, but there
were several scenes that were exceptionally well crafted.
Describing the novel as a fairy tale is apropos as it has elements of
one. I noted and appreciated the growth in the characters by the
conclusion. I'm a huge fan of all the animals populating the novel but
not so much the ghosts.