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. 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.
It’s the chorus of Everton’s dead that narrate the novel, and their affection for the town and its residents is what softens the stark, brutal reality of the fractured community. Although the novel moves at a brisk pace, its characters carefully and lovingly drawn, its developments surprising and credible, it has the feel at times of a gossip session ... The first-person plural as a narrative device affords moments of lyrical wandering that telescope perspective and time, so that tangents and quirks, the past and the present, all fold into the central action of the story ... What’s special about Hartnett’s chorus of the dead, though, is that they stress the tension between overlapping realities ... At the center of this big-hearted face-licker of a novel is a careful study of how we evolve through the act of caretaking ... This is a big novel doing big things. It bears some similarity to Hartnett’s much loved first novel, Rabbit Cake, which centered on another family in crisis, and also featured lots of animals. It was tragicomic and told in a simple voice that belied its emotional complexity and brio. 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. She explores how we construct the miraculous after our promise has left us, and challenges us to dream through disillusionment even as suffering derails us.
... a wildly compelling novel about life, death and what comes after ... It is difficult to call fiction about the opioid crisis hopeful and tender. Yet, without ever making light of the real-world implications of the issue, Hartnett has done just that. Ostensibly a novel about family and caretaking, Unlikely Animals is so enmeshed in its small-town setting, so deeply informed by the real crises faced by rural towns, that it manages to feel raw and credible, despite its more magical elements ... The book is narrated by ghosts, but it seems impossible that Hartnett doesn’t have a direct line to the afterlife herself. How else could her characters be written with such strong, vivid and unforgettable voices, each at different stages of life and death and yet each so expertly rendered on the page? I laughed at the riotous commentary from the cemetery ghosts, I marveled at ailing Clive’s serene wisdom, and I was hopelessly drawn to poor Emma, tasked with wrangling them all. Hartnett has written all of her characters with love and delight, and her ability to keep them fresh and demanding of your attention marks her as an original and distinctive storyteller, the kind you only see once in a generation ... a wondrous, delightful and deeply layered novel about caretaking --- and the way it forces the evolution of relationships and priorities --- but it's also a beguiling, big-hearted story about life and death and what really matters in the end. Whether you stay for the deep, heartbreaking bond between father and daughter, the laugh-out-loud commentary of the ghosts, or the miracles of nature that Hartnett has so impressively crafted, there is no way that you will not love this instant classic.
[An] engaging work of magic realism ... Embracing the undercurrent of fantasy in Everton, readers will contemplate how easy it is to write someone off as unredeemable or unhinged when maybe their brain works in a way most do not understand.