By Annie Hartnett
Publication Date: April 12, 2022
Emma Starling reluctantly returns home to the small New Hampshire town she grew up in, feeling very much a failure. She’s a medical school drop-out, her natural healing ability has left her, and she’s coming home to take care of her dying father. Add in a less-than supportive mother, a brother who’s just completed his second stint in rehab, a father whose degenerative brain disease leads to hallucinations of animals and the ghost of a long-deceased naturalist, as well as a missing ex-best friend, and Emma’s return has the makings of a disaster. Or it might be exactly what she needs.
At its heart, this novel is about family. Living with them, loving them, and accepting them warts and all. The story encompasses every member of the Starling family as they deal with their individual struggles and try to find their footing in turbulent and changing times. Sometimes sad and at other times humorous, I found myself rooting for all of them (except, perhaps, for the mother. Ingrid was less than sympathetic).
If this novel had only been an entertaining story, I don’t think I would have rated it as high as I did. What pushed it over the top was the amazing style and voice. It’s written in an omni (omniscient) POV, which I don’t see that often. Mainly because it’s really, really difficult to write well. Most people (myself included) try to attempt a sort of free-flowing 3rd person POV that can easily fall into the trap of head hopping. Unlikely Animals employs a true omni POV with a very strong narrator – the ghosts of those interred in the town cemetery, which is possibly the most unique narrator I’ve ever run across. Thoughts flowed effortlessly from character to character, including Rasputin the fox (I adored him). This would have been a great story without the addition of the spectral characters, but the world building that went into them was amazing and oddly, made a lot of sense to me.
Then there was the inventive structure. While most of the book was linear, the author tossed in chapters from the works of Harold Baynes, a naturalist who lived locally about a hundred years before. It could have derailed the flow of the novel, but it didn’t. It totally worked for me.
If the author were to teach a workshop on POV or novel structure, I’d pony up the money for it. She impressed me that much.
With all that said, there’s nothing left to do except rate this novel five stars. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
A very big thank you to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine Books for providing the ARC copy of this novel. I have left my review honestly and voluntarily.
Until next time, thank you for visiting.
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