Mary Helen Specht’s debut novel, “Migratory Animals,’’ brings to the page an astonishing admixture of ambitiousness, originality, and authority that’s rare among established writers and exceptional for a first effort.
The “migratory animal’’ of the book’s title is Flannery, a climate scientist who has spent her adult life on the run from her childhood demons — mostly, her mother’s slow death from Huntington’s disease.
We meet Flannery as she’s beginning a visit to her native Austin, Texas, leaving her underfinanced research project and her fiance, Kunle, in Nigeria, where she’s been living and working for the past five years. “Kunle was untainted by the loss and heartbreak Flannery’s family dragged behind it like a lizard’s tail,” Flannery thinks as she and her fiance are bidding each other adieu. “Maybe, she thought . . . this long trip to the States was an opportunity to say goodbye to her old life for good.”
In choosing time and place, Specht writes what she knows. The novel unfolds during the great recession of 2008; its flashbacks take us to Nigeria, where Specht spent time as a Fulbright scholar. Most of the action happens in Austin, where Specht lives and teaches creative writing.
In her plotting, Specht takes imaginative chances, weaving a complex set of subplots around a cast of complicated characters, a “Thirtysomething”-style group of former college friends. The novel unfolds in randomly alternating chapters from their multiple points of view: Flannery, her sister, Molly, best friend Alyce, her not-so-ex-boyfriend, Santiago, and Alyce’s husband, Harry.
The novel’s narrative tension pulls from two central dramas: the growing awareness that Molly, like her mother, is showing the early signs of Huntington’s, and Flannery’s tortured, ambivalent response to her sister’s diagnosis when it comes: “Flannery . . . thought: so here it comes again, her role as protector of the ill and dying. To be with someone who had Huntington’s was to be on display. As the symptoms became worse, the chorea and grimacing and flitting eyeballs would always create a scene.”
By choosing to closely follow a handful of characters, Specht hands herself some major authorial challenges, most but not all of which she meets. Of the five who are allotted their own chapters, the character of Alyce, who suffers from crippling depression, is the most stunningly realized. Specht’s portrait of an otherwise healthy mentally ill woman is as profound and as skillful as those found in “depression classics” like William Styron’s “Darkness Visible’’ and Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.’’
“This summer was not the first time she’d been paralyzed by the dark tar pooling inside her brain, but this was the worst it had ever been,” Specht writes of Alyce.
Immobilized by suicidal ideation, Alyce tries her usual excuse to avoid a group walk through the woods — “I’m just not up to it.” When her son objects, she relents, soothing herself with what is for her a comforting thought. “Alyce made a mental list of things on the ranch that could kill you: rattlesnakes, water moccasins, a fall from the cliff into a half-empty creek. These thoughts were shiny coins in her pocket.”
Will Flannery return to Nigeria or remain in the feathered, fraught nest of her hometown? Will she reconcile with her familiar American boyfriend, or abandon her increasingly ill sister and return to the exotic, distant place and man she loves? How long will Molly live, and what impact will her illness have on her marriage, on her friendships, on her relationship with her skittish sister? What sacrifices will she make to her disease? Will she go for the experiences she wants to have before she dies, even if they hasten her disability and her death?
Richly layered and psychologically incisive, “Migratory Animals’’ is that rare first novel that leaves the reader clamoring for the next.Meredith Maran is the author of many books of nonfiction and the novel “A Theory of Small Earthquakes.” Her next book, “Why We Write About Ourselves,” will be released this year. Follow her on Twitter @meredithmaran.