Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett is one of the most anticipated books of the year and it does not disappoint. Billed as a tragicomedy, it’s a whimsical novel about a girl who returns to her hometown after college because her father is dying of a mysterious brain disease causing him hallucinations. To make matters worse, her best friend is missing, feared to be another casualty of the opioid crisis. While Emma Starling is coping with family complications, joining the search for any trace of her missing best friend, and becoming a long-term substitute teacher to a group of precocious fifth graders, she also connects with her high school crush. And as if that isn’t enough drama for one book, the entire tale is seen through the collective eyes of the town’s cemetery residents.
Ghosts of those buried in the Maple Street Cemetery watch over the town of Everton, New Hampshire, and whenever one particular ghost has some comment of insight on the events throughout the novel, their full names and their life dates, presumable inscribed on their tombstones. These tidbits are sprinkled like confetti throughout an otherwise dark story about a girl whose dreams of medical school in California are dashed, her future unknown, her family falling apart, to find her hometown stranger than when she’d left it four years before. The ghosts want Emma to stay in Everton, and when she stumbles upon her temporary employment at the local school, they cheer.
Unlikely Animals has a weird, light-hearted mood despite all of the serious subject matter regarding addition, loss, and family. While Emma’s circumstances are engaging enough, the mystery of her missing friend and her father’s deteriorating mental state pull the reader ever onward. It has the charm of Mauve Binchy’s books, where you slowly get to know more people, with little pieces of personal information about the town and its residents unfolding throughout the book.
To top it all off, Unlikely Animals circles around the ghost of Mr. Ernest Harold Baynes, the historical figure dubbed the closest thing to a real-life Doctor Doolittle. His ghost is the constant companion of Emma’s father, and photos of the naturalist, along with stories from the life of the late Mr. Baynes. So while this is absolutely a work of fiction, with a fictional town and a delightful lack of realism, it started with a real home, expanded into a semi-biographical tale of a very interesting American naturalist and writer, and became this unique piece of fiction guaranteed to keep readers engaged.
Unlikely Animals book design credit: Dana Leigh Blanchette.
Advance Reading Copy provided by Penguin Random House via Netgalley, and reviewed by invitation.