Published in 2022 and written by Annie Hartnett, Unlikely Animals is the latest fiction gem recommended by my friend Stephanie Peterman. I have to admit that I was hesitant at first – mostly because the book jacket talks about an opioid crisis ripping apart a small town and I’m not interested in reading about that – but Stephanie assured me that the drugs were a side plot. She also clarified that the novel is actually a quirky, funny story about people living in a small town. That was a book I could get on board with and I’m glad I did.
Our protagonist is Emma Starling, who returns home to take care of her ailing father Clive. When we meet her mother Ingrid and brother August, it immediately becomes clear that the family dynamic is sad and loving at the same time. While Emma is the so-called brilliant child, August is a recovering addict used to being coddled by Ingrid. But she’s now too busy looking after Clive who is hallucinating and experiencing severe memory loss. Described as an eccentric motorcycle-riding rock and roller, Clive is the easiest character to picture. He is also a former college professor who, because of his illness, did and said some inappropriate things and was subsequently fired. Ingrid is overwhelmed and ready to put more of the Clive burden on Emma – which leads to her having to tell her family that she never actually enrolled in medical school.
As for the animal portion of the program – they are everywhere. Literally and figuratively. In fact, the book is divided into parts named for animals and punctuated by mini stories about historical figure Ernest Harold Baynes – a guy who let wild animals live in his home. It’s a fun thread/side plot that weaves throughout the story as these animals become important to the various characters. That being said, one of the side plots I could do without is the healing part that, although lends itself to aspects of the story, is also a little hippie dippy and not totally necessary.
One of my favorite features of the book would be a spoiler if we didn’t find out about it on the first page of chapter one: the narrators are the dead. Yes, you read that right. The people telling the tale of the Starling family are buried in the town cemetery. It’s absolutely brilliant. They know everything but can say nothing and cleverly describe the people they observe. Having reliable narrators who can’t intervene in the actual story is beyond refreshing.
Hartnett clearly loves animals, has good taste in music, and understands sibling dynamics. Her descriptions of the various animals (there are a lot and each one holds significance) are spot on. Also, the conversations between Emma and August are very real, funny, and loving. Their dynamic seamlessly holds components of sadness, yet still maintains compelling realizations and entertaining exchanges.
While Stephanie has never steered me wrong, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. I’m glad she didn’t let the opioid factor deter me – this book is a captivating read that highlights the importance of family and following your instincts, demonstrates why animals are such amazing creatures, and reminds us that you can go home again.
“We liked that about dogs…how clearly they can show a person exactly what they’re thinking.”
“It’s an expression of pure delight, the kind so common to see in dogs, so rarely seen in people.”
“Sometimes that kind of fear makes people do reckless, hurtful things.”
“It’s easy to figure out how you feel about something when you think you’re about to lose it.”
“That’s why we like living with animals so much; they exhibit their joy so outwardly, remind us how to be better alive.”
The names of the places in this small town are hilarious – for example, Very Pleasant Mobile Park Home and Dream Far Elementary. I can’t decide if they are quaint or satirical!
Some of the characters’ last names are interesting too – i.e. Wish and Starling.