What is it that binds us to one another as sentient beings? Is it love, the need for acceptance and belonging, our shared suffering, or a combination of all of these? Mary Helen Specht’s debut novel, Migratory Animals, published January 20, 2015, invites us to dive into these questions head first as she paints the portrait of eight close college friends whose lives have changed immensely since their college years at a “nerd school” in Texas, which the characters liken to the Harvard of the South. Helen Specht invites us into the minds of scientists, architects, engineers and artists. We experience the stories of sisters Flannery and Molly; their best friends, lovers and old flames are figuratively and literally woven together in this novel. The novel is structured by narrations of five different main characters’ perspectives, which provides the reader with slices of each individual’s inner world, and reveals how each character relates to the others.
“Some type of pain ran like a thread between all of them.”
In this work, we experience the evolution of each character on each of their unique journeys. Specht’s style captures us in evocative imagery with simple language, feeding the reader with sensory detail, often to reveal something deeper:
“It was the cliff and the wine and the sunset, but mostly it was the thought of endings glittering strangely in her mind’s eye.”
“dark trees moved against the sky, they looked like shadow puppets acting out a tale of horror, screeching and clawing at the air.”
“Watermelon is the only perfect fruit…but chopping a whole watermelon was a bitch…she held up the knife and imagine bringing it down, carving herself into pieces instead.”
Specht calls on readers to confront their feelings on all life’s big questions: love, happiness, death, dying and how to cope with debilitating illness of a loved one. Throughout the novel, we are transported through time, as each character has flashbacks to memories, primarily in college, that foreshadowed an event occurring in the present. Flannery’s best-friend-since-college, Alyce, who has recently become distant, has flashbacks of how her close-knit group of friends used to occupy their time by partying and playing “inquisitor”, asking each other anything from who they believed would be the first to marry, have kids, the first couple to part ways.
“The only subject off limits was death. You couldn’t ask who would be the first or last or third or fourth to die.”
Migratory Animals is a work rich with characters both frustrating and inspiring, lovable yet inherently and obviously flawed. Her work will cause you to redefine ideas for your own sake, as the characters do– such as what the word “home” means to you: is it a place, a person, a state of mind? If you allow it, this novel will wake you up to find what you are most challenged with in this existence. The characters in this novel are positioned in a fashion by Specht not to tell readers what to think or to provide some sort of greater moral, but to allow readers to think for themselves, and at times, even to frustrate them.
As readers, we are faced with the question of how individuals cope and reconcile their grief in different ways: in finally digging up your deceased mother’s irises , and planting them in another yard, to uprooting your whole life and moving to another country to leave grief and traces of memory in the dust. Specht reveals the paradoxical and familiar pain and comfort that are associated with the nature of attachments and learning to let go.
“One moment you’re drinking cup of coffee with your son like it’s nothing and the next you roar out of life.”
This novel may cause you to explore the depths of human emotion, even touching on mental illness. Through loss, denial and feelings of unrest we experience through the characters, we are reminded of the ambiguities of human emotion, personality, morality and perhaps “duty” to one another. This novel is one of big ideas that are presented to us by dynamically flawed beings; it is filled with plenty of private thoughts and realizations of each of these complex characters, allowing the reader to see them for who they really are.
“He thought about how prayers were selfish and yet everyone prayed them anyway”
Migratory Animals may call you to question whether or not humans are intended to form pairs, settle down, define themselves based on social circles and band together until the end, or whether we are all just migratory animals, shifting through time and space.