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'The Last Animal' is a bright-eyed meditation on what animates us

Cover of The Last Animal
Riverhead Books

What exactly is a family? Even more profoundly, why is a family?

Entire wings of the literary canon have confronted these questions, usually by framing them within the context of human families only. Which is why The Last Animal, the latest novel by Ramona Ausubel, soars where so many other books about family dynamics simply coast.

Granted, Ausubel's tale has a very recognizable family nucleus — a mother and her two teenage daughters, bound by blood yet fractured by tragedy. Where The Last Animal breaks from the pack is the addition of an ostensibly wild-card element: the bioengineered resurrection of an extinct animal species. Namely, the woolly mammoth.

Don't let that x-factor throw you. As proved by Ben Mezrich's 2017 nonfiction book Woolly, there's a rich vein of human narrative to be drawn from the paleontological exploration of those great, shaggy, dearly departed pachyderms. But where Mezrich dramatized true, scientific events, Ausubel brings deep emotional truth to her work of dramatic fiction. The setup is sturdy and abundant with promise: Jane, a graduate student in paleobiology, brings her daughters, 13 and 15, Vera and Eve, along for an Arctic dig. The girls' father died in a car accident a year earlier, and that loss hangs heavily over their heads as the trio trek to the top of the earth — "a bare place, a lost place, where ancient beasts had once roamed." Jane is looking for fossils; at the same time, her own family feels like one, a shell-like remnant of something that was once thriving and whole.

Rather than wallowing in interiorized melodrama, though, The Last Animal instantly injects Ausubel's telltale zing — in the form of an ice-bound baby mammoth and Jane's decision to go rogue on a kind of madcap ethical bender. But even more refreshing is the utter rejection of miserableness on the part of the grieving family, even as their shaggy-dog (woolly-dog?) quest starts to fly off the rails. Naturally, the question of whether it's possible to clone the baby mammoth arises, followed by the question of whether it's right to play God in that way — followed by a far more earth-shattering possibility of reviving humans. Read into that as metaphorically as you like. Ausubel sure does.

The book also tackles sexism, both personal and institutional, and it does so with wryness rather than clickbait cliches. "Dudes, ugh," Vera groans as she tries to make sense of her mother's apparent willingness to play by the rules of boys'-club academia: "The patriarchy, and stuff." It's comic, and it's cutting, and it helps impart an air of witty tribunal to Jane's, Eve's and Vera's constant banter. The fact that Ausubel has fridged the character of Jane's husband — in a tale about frozen creatures, no less — is itself a neat gender inversion. But it's not revenge; during one of Vera's characteristic spells of gleeful mischief, "a Dad-spark glinted, a pilgrimage to some part of him."

"They would all be bones sooner or later, but they were not themselves specimens," Ausubel writes late in the story, just as the full moral consequence of Jane's quixotic actions starts to bear down on her and the girls. The book's way with distanced, almost clinical turns of phrase is strangely enough part of its charm. Images such as "jars of pickled mutants" don't just pop off the page; they also evoke the dark whimsy of Katherine Dunn's classic Geek Love — another novel that uses genetic manipulation and macabre oddities to probe the nature of family. Ultimately, however, Ausubel writes of pride: motherly pride, daughterly pride, sisterly pride, and how this power can sustain togetherness. And even resurrect wholeness. Splicing wit and wisdom, The Last Animal is a bright-eyed meditation on what animates us, biologically as well as emotionally — but most of all, familially.

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.

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Jason Heller