‘Unlikely Animals’ by Annie Hartnett – cute in an Instagram kitten video way but not for me – abandoned at 43%

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.

Unlikely Animals is a hopeful, compassionate, gentle novel that tends towards a sort of whimsical, hapless optimism when faced with the harsh realities of a world that cares for you not at all. It’s redolent with the scent of innocence blossoming into hope sustained by a belief in an infinite number of possibilities for personal redemption.

I’m sure the words that are supposed to be going through my mind as I read it are ‘heartwarming’ and ‘uplifting’.

Instead, I’m finding myself reluctantly acknowledging, at almost halfway through the book, that I can’t take any more and I need to set it aside.

I’m not an optimist and I tend to default to Graham Greene’s description of innocence in The Quiet American, “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” so probably, I’m not the target audience for this book.

So why did I buy it and why did it take so long to decide to abandon it?

Well, look at that gorgeous cover. And there are foxes (although those turned out to be imaginary). And a big friendly dog (who wasn’t at all unlikely but was still my favourite animal). And cute primary school kids. And it’s narrated by Mark Bramhall who has a comfortable-armchair sit-awhile voice that I could listen to all day. And the writing is engaging and often humorous. And I loved the idea of seeing what’s happening in a small town through the eyes of the residents of the local graveyard.

So I listened for longer than I might have expected because everything was so easy to listen to. A bit like watching kitten videos on Instagram or YouTube – you know it’s not getting you anywhere but you’re happy to lose time to it.

I also listened to it because I could feel the dissonance between the hopefulness of the writing and the hopelessness of the content like a powerful low-frequency hum upsetting my gut and I was waiting for a change of tone.

This so-cute-it-sometimes-hurts book tells the story of a friendless, goalless, unhappy young woman who won a place at medical school that she only pretended to take up and who has come home because her father is dying from a brain disease that causes him to hallucinate. Her brother is recovering from opioid addiction (again). Her mother has stayed in a marriage she wishes she’d left when her husband had an affair and before he became a man so sick it would be callous to divorce him. Her best friend from school, who it turns out she never knew that well, is missing and presumed to have died from a heroin overdose and her love interest is only back in town because his mother is dying of cancer.

So I kept waiting for the book to take a darker turn. For reality to overwhelm hope. For life to turn out to be tough and unforgiving and for some decisions to be irrevocable.

Today, I realised that that was probably not going to happen. That it was likely that all of these characters were going to spend the next six hours sliding towards a heartwarming, uplifting, improbable happy ending and that, if I sat through all that, I’d just be angry at myself, so I set the book aside.

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