“Migratory Animals,” by Mary Helen Specht

Mary Helen Specht (photo by Erica Nix)

Mary Helen Specht (photo by Erica Nix)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Harris

Migratory Animals is an ambitious, contemporary-feeling novel that measures, for me, the difference between Now in Southern writing and a classic Then—even as issues from Then still devil our shared lives. It’s a Then of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Ralph Ellison, William Goyen, and those of their early-to-mid-twentieth-century characters who struggled against the racism, provincialism, poverty, and omnipresent history of their South. These are characters whom the varied promises of freedom and opportunity beckon away from familial love and the ways and places of home, which nevertheless tug at them.

Some of those familiar themes appear in Migratory Animals, only shuffled and radically reassigned in its contemporary setting. The world of Specht’s young climate researcher Flannery is international: she has lived in Africa for five years. Home feels more like Nigeria and the Nigerian fiancé she has left there—temporarily, she believes—than like the Texas she returns to. Racism appears in the remembered admiration of Nigerians on the streets for her whiteness and the seduction of having been special in Nigeria. The entrenched public and private poverty of the country, a kleptocracy for decades, brings Flannery back to Austin during the depression of 2008, to seek funding for her research project.

In Austin a cosmopolitan group of thirty-something former college friends provides—in a novelistic technique learnable from Faulkner—the multiple perspectives of the novel. This group feels like family to each other and, crucially, includes Flannery’s younger sister Molly. Some of them have lost their own research funding or, struggling to raise children, see their fledgling business ventures fail. History as they recall it is personal and familial. Regional culture is mostly distanced by irony or left behind in provincial places.

The Texas ranch mentioned is Roadrunner, an arts residency currently held by Flannery’s best friend Alyce, a weaver. Of two pairs of cowboy boots in the novel, one is a remembered fashion item worn with fishnet hose; the other belongs to a memory of Flannery’s father, who teaches community college in Abilene and writes ”literary westerns about assholes and cowboys.” The ethnic background of former boyfriend Santiago appears only as the South Texas he has escaped, encouraged by his own father, “a Mexican who didn’t much like Mexicans.” Sister Molly’s husband is an Iraqi-American scientist.

But scenes at Roadrunner Ranch anchor the novel’s physical setting amid the natural landscape of Central Texas, the “oaks and cedars that didn’t quite obscure the view of the development springing up along the ridge,” and provide the novel’s central metaphors. Country music plays from Molly’s earbuds; her tattoo celebrates “Where Bob Willis Is Still the King.” And the novel’s main conflict becomes a familiarly tormented regional one, the hold of loved ones, in past and present, against the felt need to leave. As Santiago woos her, Flannery makes the shocking discovery that her sister shows signs of the Huntington’s disease that slowly killed their mother: “so here it comes again, her role as protector of the ill and dying.” At stake for Flannery, personally clear of the genetic curse, is her freedom to return to Nigeria where “her sister was not dying,” where “she had no sister at all.”

This novel, set on the Western margin of the South, might seem only tenuously Southern, except that, amid Sun-belt development, the characters evoke an urban class of Now that inhabits many Southern cities. College-educated “creatives,” bohemianized by unstable finances and further impoverished by Depression, remake our ideas of what the South is. At least one reviewer blames Ms. Specht for her characters’ relative privilege and for Flannery’s initial hardness against her remaining nuclear family. But this is both dramatically useful and made entirely plausible by her memories of an adolescence spent caring for her mother through her terrible decline, the specter that looms over Molly and her husband. Would we want the privileged grown-up children of our region to be poorer, less creative, less well-supplied with friends as they cope with their own circumstances?

I won’t commit a spoiler by saying what Flannery discovers and decides. Migratory Animals is full of discoveries and decisions by a group of beautifully realized characters. This novel is about a group. The several plot threads diffuse focus at points, but the novel achieves momentum: I read the last fifty-five pages with suspense. Migratory Animals is an important debut novel, creating images of a defining time in the life of a generation in a place. Migratory Animals creates a tableau both sad and hopeful of where parts of a region and country are Now.

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  1. Scott Downing, what else? says

    Damn fine review and well-deserved. Her father, the “asshole” who wears cowboy boots with fishnet stockings is intriguing. But Abilene, being overstocked with religious students, is often the source of oddities. I hope this book is the first of many more for the Prairie Rose.

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