Unlikely Animals

If you’re looking for something playful these days, something that doesn’t bring more darkness to an already foreboding time we seem to live in, then you might want to pick up Unlikely Animals. Despite its lively tone, I would not call this a cozy read: drugs, missing persons, mental illness, etc. It’s has a kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink thing going on.

Set in the fictionalized Upper Valley town (that’s us, we live there!) of Everton, this novel is meandering, but one that eventually finds the path home.

Emma Starling has dropped out of med school and moved back to her hometown to reset. She has to deal with a lot. She hasn’t told her parents she’s dropped out of school. Her bitter, formerly drug addicted brother still lives at home, constantly criticizing his perceived perfect sister. Her mother is herself a perfectionist. Her father has a medical condition that causes him to have illusionary visions. His behavior leads to some truly calamitous situations around town that Emma must clean up. She needs a job and somehow ends up as a long-term substitute teacher to a class that has lost a classmate and a teacher to an illegal drug dealing trial. Oh, yeah, and the who thing is narrated by the ghosts in the local graveyard. So, there’s a lot going on here.

The thing that is looming over Emma as she’s moved back home is that her estranged, former best friend from high school is missing, vanished, presumed dead by some, or a runaway by others. Her father is obsessed with finding her friend, which leads to some eyebrow raising situations.

The entire novel takes place in the shadow of the real-life Corbin Park, which is a 19th-century game park set up by old money tycoons that survives to this day. It’s an odd and secretive place, with elk, wild boars, bears, and no one but it’s few members who are allowed in.

This novel is a little hard to describe because there are so many different parts moving about. But rather than seeming complicated, Annie Hartnett writes of a rich and lively town with eccentric characters whose personalities are as idiosyncratic as their interpersonal relationships are.

Unlikely Animals is a little bit of everything, a small-town and character driven novel, a funny story, a bit of a mystery, and a latter-day bildungsroman. It’s about friendship, and family, and how easily they can become frayed or torn apart and what it takes to mend them. For Emma it’s also the realization that our relationships to those we love are much more complicated than we often understand.


Click here for downloadable versions.


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