Unlikely Animals

A Novel



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April 12, 2022 | ISBN 9780593400661

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About the Book

“This tragicomic novel is heartfelt, touching, and delightfully quirky. You’ll fall in love with the offbeat cast of characters (both living and dead) and find yourself rooting for them right through the last page.”—Good Housekeeping (Book Club pick)

A lost young woman returns to small-town New Hampshire under the strangest of circumstances in this one-of-a-kind novel of life, death, and whatever comes after from the acclaimed author of Rabbit Cake.

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, Book Riot
Longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize

It was a source of entertainment at Maple Street Cemetery. Both funny and sad, the kind of story we like best. 

Natural-born healer Emma Starling once had big plans for her life, but she’s lost her way. A medical school dropout, she’s come back to small-town Everton, New Hampshire, to care for her father, who is dying from a mysterious brain disease. Clive Starling has been hallucinating small animals, as well as having visions of the ghost of a long-dead naturalist, Ernest Harold Baynes, once known for letting wild animals live in his house. This ghost has been giving Clive some ideas on how to spend his final days.

Emma arrives home knowing she must face her dad’s illness, her mom’s judgment, and her younger brother’s recent stint in rehab, but she’s unprepared to find that her former best friend from high school is missing, with no one bothering to look for her. The police say they don’t spend much time looking for drug addicts. Emma’s dad is the only one convinced the young woman might still be alive, and Emma is hopeful he could be right. Someone should look for her, at least. Emma isn’t really trying to be a hero, but somehow she and her father bring about just the kind of miracle the town needs.

Set against the backdrop of a small town in the throes of a very real opioid crisis, Unlikely Animals is a tragicomic novel about familial expectations, imperfect friendships, and the possibility of resurrecting that which had been thought irrevocably lost.
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Praise for Unlikely Animals

“A quirky, poignant novel about family, community and love for our animal friends.”The Washington Post

“This is a big novel doing big things. It bears some similarity to Hartnett’s much- loved first novel, Rabbit Cake. . . . But Unlikely Animals is a broader, brassier, and even more fiercely tender story. In this, her second novel, Hartnett lands an astonishing leap as a storyteller.”The Rumpus

“Wistfully charming . . . This unapologetically genre-bending tribute to life and death, and the beautiful weirdness found in both, has potential to spark exceptional book club discussions.”Shelf Awareness

“A beguiling, big-hearted story about life and death and what really matters in the end. . . . There is no way you will not love this instant classic.”Bookreporter

Unlikely Animals possesses such tenderness and empathy for a world that wears us down and ruins us, a world that sometimes offers a glimmer of hope, and Hartnett knows how to turn up the brilliance of that light and wield it to do magical things.”—Kevin Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of Nothing to See Here and The Family Fang

“I devoured Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals. She’s created a beautiful menagerie set inside a troubled household and their small New Hampshire town; a delightful mess of tenderness, grief, and despair, but most important, hope.”—Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author of Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth

“A wondrous and wonderful story filled with unforgettable characters, both living and dead. An instant classic that will make you question reality even as you embrace a town with a unique relationship to nature and miracles.” —Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times bestselling author of the Southern Reach trilogy

“A riotous, joyful, hilarious romp with the wild and the tamed, the living and the dead, Unlikely Animals is both a love letter to John Irving and a literary accomplishment in its own right . . . Unlikely Animals is a triumph.”—Rufi Thorpe, author of The Knockout Queen, finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award

Unlikely Animals is a large-hearted story populated by an original and amiable cast of characters—human, animal, spirit—about living, dying, and all the messiness in between.”—Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin

“Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, is striking and richly imagined, with a voice that is wholly its own. . . . The magic of Hartnett’s novel stems from the balance of these weighty topics with the story’s intrinsic playfulness.”BookPage (starred review)
“Hartnett masterfully balances a story of deep loss with the perfect amount of hilarity and tenderness.”Booklist (starred review)

“An absurdist, laugh-out-loud family drama about intergenerational healing.”Kirkus Reviews
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Unlikely Animals


Emma Starling didn’t come into Everton the way that took her by Maple Street Cemetery, so she didn’t hold her breath when she drove by us, like she used to on the school bus as a kid. She didn’t drive by the town square either, so she missed the celebratory sight when the four men and two teenage boys finally caught the wild boar. Emma hadn’t seen the way they whooped and slapped one another on the back.

Boars aren’t native to New Hampshire, but here in Everton, they often dig out underneath the electric fence to escape the private hunting park that spans the Upper Valley. The park is enormous, 26,000 acres, fenced in about 135 years ago by the nineteenth-century robber baron Austin Corbin as his grand retirement project; he bought up the land from farmers and shipped in animals from all over the world. The Corbin family went bankrupt after the world wars, and today the park is owned by a small club of anonymous millionaires, each member with their own hunting cabin. These millionaires tend to keep to themselves, unless a boar gets out, when park headquarters puts out a call to catch the pig: $1,000 reward.

“Shit,” Emma said, her anxiety mounting as she drove. “I can’t believe I’m back here.”

Even though Emma didn’t drive by us in the cemetery, we could hear her muttering to herself; we could see that she had an enormous white dog in the backseat of her red rental car; we were beginning to hear some of her thoughts. We see and hear it all in Everton, one of the perks of being dead, omniscience within town limits. It’s a little frustrating how the living come and go, but we always get the full story eventually.

Emma’s story was trickling out of her now. We learned it wasn’t a triumphant return for the twenty-two-year-old red-headed medical school student, who was wearing a nice enough gray sweater but had rips in the knees of her jeans that her mother would never approve of. It seemed things had gone all wrong back in California, but right now, she was mostly thinking about what she was driving into. Her father’s new doctor said he couldn’t be sure exactly what the disease was until an autopsy, which was definitely out of the question as long as Clive remained alive, but it was causing tremors, confusion, and extremely vivid hallucinations.

“Today he says he’s seeing a ghost,” Emma’s mother had complained on the phone. She’d sighed. “Dr. Wheeler says a year, two at the best.”

“How can this doctor say it’ll be a year when he doesn’t know what disease it is?” Emma asked.

“It’s not the time to outsmart everyone, Emma. It can be a little tiring. Just come home. I know your brother would like to see you too.”

Emma knew there was no way Auggie gave one single flying fart about whether she ever came home or not, but she knew it was time to come home anyway.

“And you need to forgive your father before he dies,” her mother had reminded her. “Otherwise, that guilt will eat you from the inside out.”

“Okay, Mom,” Emma had said, and the phone call was pretty much over after that. Her mom had followed up with an email, had given it the subject line “THINGS TO TALK ABOUT WITH YOUR FATHER,” but Emma hadn’t bothered to read it. She was angry that her mother had let her dad back in the house after only two months of sleeping under his desk in the Meriden College English Department Building. Emma would have left him there at least a few months more, but her father got away with everything.

The man is dying, she reminded herself as she drove. Have some sympathy. The big white dog in the backseat sniffed at the top of the window, wondering if Emma could please crack it a little to let some smells in. We learned then that Emma had picked up the dog only a half hour before. When she turned onto the Route 10 exit toward Everton, the dog had been trotting along, no owner in sight, no collar, matted fur. Emma loved dogs, but she would have stopped the rental car for anyone if it meant she could delay her arrival. She would have stopped for a hitchhiker, a possible serial killer. When Emma pulled the car over, the dog had hopped right in the backseat. He was super-duper glad to see her, nothing close to a killer. She named the dog Moses, after that famous orphan and savior, because Emma felt like she needed a savior right then. Moses put his head between the seats and rested his chin on her bony shoulder. Emma had always been small. She was pale with freckles. A 7 out of 10, according to Jesse Peters (b. 1984–d. 2013), one of our graveyard residents who considered himself an armchair expert on the ladies.

“You’re going to live in the palace,” Emma told Moses, even if that was not exactly how she felt about her childhood home, but her parents’ house was definitely a good place to be a dog. Her mother’s last rescue dog had died that summer, cancer, and she had recently said that she had “a dog-shaped hole in her heart,” even though her husband was also dying.

Moses went to swipe the side of Emma’s cheek with his tongue, and a drool loogie fell from his jowls and stuck to Emma’s sweater, which was extremely gross, but Emma’s heart warmed. “Good boy,” she said. Friend, Moses was thinking at that moment. We liked that about dogs, we always had, how clearly they can show a person exactly what they’re thinking. We spend most of our time focused on the thoughts of the human beings of our town, but sometimes it’s good to be absorbed in the thoughts of a dog.

Emma drove past the sign advertising snowmobile rentals: kids under five ride free! So many people don’t know how redneck New Hampshire really is, Emma thought, which hurt our feelings a little. We had hoped she would be glad to be back after so much time away. We’d hoped that once she’d seen the traffic of Los Angeles, she could have appreciated our town’s charm. Because Everton is really a nice place to live, or it was for us.

Other than the enormous private hunting park, Everton is more or less a normal New Hampshire town. There are pine trees and winding roads and blue-green mountains. Sugar River snakes through the town, dotted with covered bridges, and the water is clean enough to swim and fish in. We’re particularly proud of Maple Street Cemetery, which is surrounded by a neat stone wall, with a large iron gate, and is very well maintained by our groundskeeper, the one-handed Mr. Ridley Willett, an army vet. It’s really a town no different from any other, a place where people live and people die.

But maybe, now that Emma Starling was coming back to Everton, things could be different. Just this once, maybe someone would cheat death, edge the Grim Reaper out by a nose. We weren’t naïve at Maple Street; we knew about the limits of Emma’s abilities from her years of adolescent healing attempts, her days sitting in the sticky red booth at the McDonald’s with Crystal Nash, the girls charging forty-five dollars cash for a half hour of real-deal teenage healing. Crystal was the business manager, the entire operation had been her idea. Crystal used to insist that with Emma’s power she could be like Jesus. But Emma wasn’t exactly Jesus. Emma had trouble getting close to people, and Jesus, well, that dude was charismatic. Jesus must have been a helluva guy; not many people can say they came back from the dead. The rest of us stay here when we go.

But Emma didn’t have to be Jesus; you don’t have to be Jesus to want to save your dad from what’s killing him. And at least by now, the time of her return to Everton, Emma was older, more mature. The Charm should have grown stronger, so maybe she could really heal her father, extend his lifeline by a little. We didn’t want Clive to live forever, we just wanted a little more time tacked on at the end. Extra time would mean something, for anyone, and especially for a man like Clive, who still had some things to work out with his family.

“Don’t hold your breath for a miracle,” Charles Tepper (b. 1932–d. 1998) said from his seat on his grave, since he didn’t believe Clive’s condition was curable. A bunch of us laughed, funny since none of us breathe anyway.

“What about mothers who lift cars off babies?” Mae Belle Henick (b. 1799–d. 1820) argued from her headstone. “Anything could happen, Charles, you know that.” Mae Belle had died before the invention of the automobile, but at Maple Street we stay up on current events.

As Emma got closer to her parents’ house, more and more of the trees along the road were littered with white flyers staple-gunned to the trunks. Maybe Emma needed her eyes examined, because from the driver’s seat, she could only make out the word “missing” at the top. Emma figured it was a missing pet, or a stolen car, or a tractor or snowblower gone missing from a garage. Emma wasn’t at all concerned about the flyers, which disappointed us. We thought since she’d stopped for the stray dog on the side of the road, she’d stop to see what those posters were all about, and she would learn what her parents hadn’t been telling her.

About the Author

Annie Hartnett
Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, which was listed as one of Kirkus Reviews’s Best Books of 2017 and a finalist for the New England Book Award. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She studied philosophy at Hamilton College, has an MA from Middlebury College, and an MFA from the University of Alabama. When she began writing Unlikely Animals, she was living in the groundskeeper’s house in a cemetery. She now lives in a small town in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and darling border collie, Mr. Willie Nelson. More by Annie Hartnett
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