The first thing you realize as you begin reading Unlikely Animals, the latest book from Annie Hartnett, MA English ’11, is that the omniscient narrators of the story are the spirits of the dead in Maple Street Cemetery who keep an eye on the people of the small town of Everton, New Hampshire. With as much personality as any of the live characters, they tell the narrative of Emma Starling, thought since birth to be a natural-born healer, who comes home after college to take care of her dying father. He has a mysterious brain disease, and everyone thinks that Emma can cure him. But Emma arrives in Everton with a lot of personal baggage, not to mention a stray dog she has picked up along the way, and her reentry into her dysfunctional family is anything but smooth.
Her brother has been to rehab a number of times for opioid addiction, her mother is struggling to hold onto some semblance of normalcy, and her father is seeing hallucinations of small animals in the kitchen as well as the ghost of a long-dead local naturalist, Ernest Harold Baynes, who often visits him. And while Emma has secrets she hasn’t told her family, she soon discovers that they haven’t told her about the disappearance of her best friend from high school, presumed dead from a drug overdose. No one is bothering to look for Crystal Nash, but Emma’s dad, Clive, is convinced she is still alive and posts missing-person posters all over town. Emma decides to help him.
What happens in this extraordinary tale is both laugh-out-loud funny and poignant at the same time. Hartnett has filled her story with memorable characters—human, spiritual, and animal—and with plot twists and turns that you don’t see coming. Emma was supposed to go to med school—how does she suddenly end up as a fifth grade teacher? How does Ernest Harold Baynes convince Clive to order a fox from Russia for $18,000? Why does the ship not sink after all in the community production of Titanic? And while Emma and Clive eventually find out what happened to Crystal Nash, you will never guess how it comes about. (Hint: it involves a bear.)
Hartnett set out to write this novel after visiting a small town in New Hampshire and coming upon an enormous yellow mansion that intrigued her. After Googling it, she learned all about the man who built it, robber baron Austin Corbin; found out about his 26,000-acre hunting park, stocked with animals from all over the world; and read about local resident Ernest Harold Baynes, a real-life Doctor Doolittle who lived with wild animals in his house. She decided to roll all these elements into her story and began to do research about the town and its residents. In doing so, however, she discovered she needed to address the opioid crisis happening in the area, which, as she says in her research notes, cast “too large a shadow over the real town I was inspired by to ignore it in my fictional one.” She carefully wove the issue into her narrative, treating her characters realistically and with sensitivity.
Unlikely Animals is a far-fetched, wondrous, engaging tale that tackles the complexity of family ties, the quirkiness of small-town exploits, and the richness and messiness of life and death. It’s a story from the heart, and it is, as the spirits in Maple Street Cemetery say, “both funny and sad, the kind of story we like best.” We can’t help but agree.