Reviewed by Esmée de Heer
Migratory Animals is Mary Helen Specht‘s first novel and it’s a big one. She tackles difficult subjects like Huntington’s disease and mental illness, but also emigrating, friends versus family and the disappointment of our current economy.
During the book we follow two sisters and their group of friends. Flannery feels like the center of the novel and conveniently she has lots in common with the author. Flannery is a snow-scientist who moved to Nigeria to participate in a study, but there she falls in love with the country and a man, Kunle. Having to go back to the US for further research, she leaves the man of her dreams behind and lands back into her old group of friends. She immediately sees that her sister is ill, recognizing the same symptoms her mother displayed while dying of Huntington’s. This of course throws her for a loop. Should she return to her amazing life in Nigeria or stay and help her sister?
The book has a large scope, not only tackling all of the above-mentioned subjects, but also a large amount of people. Besides Flannery we read from the point of view of her sister Molly and their friends Alyce, Santiago and Harry. The male characters are definitely the side characters and sometimes reading from their point of view felt like stalling the story. All they did was gush and worry over the women in their lives, trying to figure out how to make them love them again. I think Specht did a much better job writing from the female perspectives, giving life to Molly, Alyce and Flannery and their own set of problems. They are the heart of the novel, Alyce dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, while Molly and Flannery are dealing with the death sentence that is Huntington’s disease. I really enjoyed the parts where you see these three characters love and support one another. Their personalities and stories are the strongest and this is where you can really see Specht shine.
Migratory Animals is definitely an ambitious debut novel. Sometimes it feels a bit too full, too filled with people and ideas and hardship, but Specht handles the topics with grace and knows how to write. Definitely a recommendation to people who like slow and calm novels that have a depressing edge to them.
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There’s an ebook of Migratory Animals available here.