The Last Animal is an apt title for Abby Geni’s debut story collection. Many of the stories spotlight a character and an animal of one sort of another, with the animal featuring as the character’s last hope, or their last unbroken attachment to the world. These animals aren’t your average pets, for the most part. The first and probably strongest story, “Terror Birds,” opens with a family drama on an ostrich farm; in the stories that follow, there’s an octopus, a dog, and sightings of varied sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
The importance of animals in each plot makes the book feel unusual at first, and in a good way. It’s always a strength in a story collection to have something holding all the pieces together, and the connection that Geni draws between the animal world and the human one is comforting, and uniquely pleasing. But despite varied perspectives and settings, clear prose, and the distinctive thread of animals trailing through the book, most of the stories can be boiled down to the same structure. Each features a character who is losing or has lost something or someone—innocence, health, a romantic partner, a parent, a brother, a favorite camp counselor, a child. The stories themselves are not about the act of losing; instead, the losses bubble beneath the surface, while a separate plot moves forward. Each story then becomes about how characters react to their loss. About midway through the book, this pattern becomes obvious, and while Geni writes beautifully and develops characters expertly, it can be tiring to anticipate the one trick of this pony.
Geni may be trying to combat the similarity of plot by having drastically different perspectives, settings, and types of characters. There’s an admirable range of ages and outlooks, and that’s truly one of the more enjoyable features of the collection, though it doesn’t make up for the repetitive nature of the plots. “Terror Birds” is told by two alternating first-person narrators: a little boy in Arizona who discovers his father’s affair before his mother does and runs away for two days in the hot desert, and his mother, a woman struggling to understand why her 9-year-old is acting out and putting himself—and their ostrich farm—in danger. “Captivity” is a first-person account from a young woman who works with octopi at an aquarium in Chicago, and has just moved back in with her mother when she begins to receive mysterious postcards, supposedly signed by her brother, who has been missing for six years. “Silence” follows a middle-aged, solitary man in rural Maine as he builds his “own version of the Wright brothers’ plane.” His loss creeps up on the reader slower and steadier than in other stories; he’s got a brain tumor that he’s decided not to treat, and he’s full of reflections on his own father’s death.
As in any collection of short stories, some remain with the reader longer than others. “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” comes the closest to unspooling a loss before the reader’s eyes; it opens with the chatty sentence, “There were eight of us in the cabin, all Jews from the north side of Chicago.” Adeptly told in the second person plural, this story uses a tricky perspective that is unusually fitting for the events at hand, which helps to get the reader wrapped up in the gossip and mystery surrounding the disappearance of a counselor at a summer camp.
There’s no doubt that Abby Geni knows how to tell a good story. The question is if she has more in her repertoire. While it’s not uncommon for a writer to tell the same story over and over (just look to Nobel-prize winning short story writer Alice Munro), that story has to feel new each time (and Munro is not really a fair comparison for any young writer). Geni has a strong base to work with—expert prose and an observant, keen eye—and it will be interesting to see if her next book offers more than loss and solace from unusual (and often furry) friends.