cover image Unlikely Animals

Unlikely Animals

Annie Hartnett. Ballantine, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-16022-0

Hartnett (Rabbit Cake) delivers a quirky ghost story set in present-day Upper Valley, N.H., inspired by the legacy of naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes. Emma Starling, 22, drops out of medical school to help care for her father, Clive, who is suffering from a rare brain disease. Clive was forced to retire from his professorship due to his hallucinations of animals and is now obsessed with finding Emma’s high school best friend Crystal Nash, who has been missing for several months. When Emma becomes a substitute teacher for fifth graders, she’s drawn back into all the drama of her hometown, including her brother Auggie’s opioid addiction and her mother Ingrid’s unhappiness. With the police unconcerned over Crystal’s disappearance, Emma decides to work with Clive to solve the mystery. The ghosts of various dead townspeople weigh in throughout, such as “real-life Doctor Doolittle” Baynes, whom Clive reveres and who now tells Clive what to do. Others lend an amusing point of view to the proceedings (“one of the perks of being dead, omniscience within town limits,” one of them says). While the jarring ending is hard to swallow, Hartnett’s clever prose and brisk pacing will carry readers through. Hartnett’s whimsical storytelling casts a spell. Agent: Katie Grimm, Don Congdon Assoc. (Apr.)