A Gentle Touch: Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals

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Right out of the gate, the protagonist of Annie Hartnett’s new novel Unlikely Animals is performing miracles: Emma Starling, not a minute old, cures the midwife who delivers her of her sciatica. “Charismata iamaton,” the midwife calls it; “The Charm,” Emma’s motorcycle-riding, heavy metal-loving, poetry professor father calls it. While not quite Christlike in magnitude, Emma’s healing powers are nonetheless extraordinary. With a touch, she can speed up the natural process of healing. “A ten-day cold could be knocked down to a three-dayer, a poison-ivy rash could heal in a day, a dog-bite could scab overnight.” Soon, the people of Everton, her small New Hampshire town, are eager for her to lay hands upon them. As a teen, Emma and her friend Crystal even start a healing business called the Gentle Touch Society out of a McDonald’s. From such exceptional beginnings, Emma appears poised to leap into the mythic. She leaves home for what promises to be a splashy, important life. Then she’s called back home from graduate school in California to be with her father as he dies.

The Emma who returns harbors a secret that is notably unremarkable. She’s failed. Or rather, she quit med school before she risked failing. She’s been lying to her family about her enrollment. She got a job and was fired. She lives in an overstuffed hippy house. She’s unhappy. And, most tragic of all, her gift has left her.

The home Emma finds is similarly undergoing tragic transformations. Her father Clive is dying of a strange brain disease that provokes hallucinations. He was recently forced into early retirement when he saw his classroom filled with cats. He sees little animals all over the place, and has befriended the ghost of Ernest Harold Baynes, the early 20th century naturalist from Everton, famous for letting woodland creatures live in his home. Emma’s brother Auggie has also come home, fresh from his latest stint at rehab and recovering from an opioid addiction sparked by a football injury that dashed his promising athletic future. Crystal, Emma’s best friend and former Gentle Touch business manager, has gone missing, and her own struggles with addiction portend a grim outcome. Emma’s father is the only one in town delusional enough to believe Crystal needs help and isn’t dead of an overdose. Even Emma’s mother, the decisive command center of the family, is showing signs of coming unglued.

But times are tough all over Everton. Even the local fifth-grade teacher has suffered a bout of rotten luck, having quit her job in disgrace after her husband, a used-car salesman, was arrested for dealing heroin to high school kids. While Emma is at a loss for what to do—about herself, her future and her family— there are still those in the community that are pulling for her. The residents of Maple Street Cemetery haven’t lost their faith in Emma, despite the fact that she’s lost her magic. Even if she could still heal with her touch, they wouldn’t care. They’re all dead.

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 Maple Street Cemetery chorus squabble amongst themselves, single each other out, editorialize. They also reflect on their own state as storytellers now and then: “One thing we’ve learned from one another, chattering away as we do, is that a good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent….”  Like Buddha in the Attic and The Virgin Suicides, 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. They are at once oldsters grumping about how the living check their phones before their morning coffee, and neglected children who collectively delight at any gift that’s left at a grave. They treasure “[f]lowers, sure, and sometimes food, which was a horrible idea, since we couldn’t eat it, and sometimes squirrels would die from the toxicity. Candles were everywhere, as well as laminated pictures of Jesus or Mary or various saints. Once, we’d gotten a Monopoly game, since Jesse Peters (b. 1984 – d. 2013) had loved to play as a kid and again, later in rehab. We loved any object left in the graveyard, really, even the food….” The Maple Street gang has rules, though: they can’t interfere with the living, and they must care about them. Those who stop caring disappear, and those that care too much and interfere suffer an explosion of the spirit. Where they go after that, nobody knows.

These sorts of jurisdictional disputes are at the center of Unlikely Animals. While Emma begins repairing her present self, she has to come to grips with who she was. Her brother is no help. He calls his big sister “G.G.,” which Emma presumes stands for “Golden Girl,” and is a dig at the overlarge shadow she once cast that he’s been forced to live in. As she sends fruitless, unanswered texts to Crystal, she reflects that she may not have been much of a friend. In college, when she got word that Crystal’s father had died, she’d merely texted her condolences and a promise to buy her a daiquiri when she got back into town. That text, years before her disappearance when Crystal was working as an Everton bartender, was answered. “Crystal responded a day later, said she’d rather eat a can of shit.” Somewhere in the mix, the healer of the sick has become pretty selfish.

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, as Emma takes on the responsibilities of caring for her father and subsequently assumes the role of long-term substitute teacher for a newly rudderless fifth grade class. Emma’s high school crush has also returned home and teaches at the local middle school, where he’s conducting a doomed experiment that places his students, one by one, in temporary guardianship of a baby goat, which he carries around hugged to his chest and is called upon to rescue again and again. Other animals of the novel are themselves caretakers, from Moses the dog, whom Emma picks up in the first chapter and who winds up adoringly protective of her father, to an imported Russian fox who learns to manage the dynamics of Emma’s household. Although Clive’s cats are hallucinations that spring from his diminishing mind, they aren’t the novel’s unlikeliest animals.

Emma’s father, Clive, is perhaps the novel’s most singular embodiment of the strain that comes when one contains multitudes. Excruciatingly domesticated by his illness and inspired by his buddy Ernest Harold Baynes, he brings a deer into the house. The smell of nail polish sets the deer into a panic (hunters use acetone to clean their guns) and destroys the house. He’s both possessed by a joyful, Dionysian zestiness, and the possessor of the debilitating disease that’s killing him at a fairly rapid clip. He’s a professor at a stuffy East Coast liberal arts college who loves Black Sabbath and, eventually, video games. He’s a devoted family man in his fourth marriage. And while his beloved daughter, Emma, becomes more and more lost in her home and her fallen state, he becomes increasingly obsessed with finding Crystal. He puts up missing person fliers and harasses the police. He interrogates townspeople again and again (he forgets a lot). Once a wild, romantic figure in the community, Clive has become a nuisance. At one point in the book, as though deliberately kitted out in a uniform designed to stress his bipolarity, he’s discovered wandering the streets, dressed in a shirt and winter parka and naked from the waist down.

Even as Emma and her family begin to coalesce around a new, unimagined life, one that incorporates Clive’s decline, the mystery of Crystal’s disappearance isn’t done with them. It haunts the peripheries of their new loves and triumphs and misfortunes as the town of Everton is itself abutted by Corbin Park, a 26,000-acre private park surrounded by electric fencing. It’s there that Ernest Harold Baynes conducted his work and made his animal friends, now owned by a collective of millionaires for hunting getaways. No one knows exactly what goes on in there; the only clues they get are the occasional escaped boar, the odd helicopter passing over the town and touching down somewhere in its densely forested depths. Just as the line between the living and the dead has, in Hartnett’s hands, become porous and obscure, so too have the lines between the wild and the housebroken, the mysterious and the known.

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. It’s the sort of book that will leave you feeling like Moses the dog, who leaps out of her car and looks around at a field he’d never been to before. “Another great place, Moses thought. Smells amazing.

Josh English's work has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, and a few other places. His short story "The Human Animal" won the 2021 Ember Chasm Review Fiction Prize and his short story collection was a finalist for the Iron Horse Prize. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama and lives in Louisville, Kentucky where he is a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @PsychobillyBook. More from this author →