A fabulous book! At its most literal level!
Reading the blurb of this, the fate of Romany children in Eastern Europe during World War II was an appealing on. Then it mentioned that they come across animals in a zoo which talk to them.
Talking animals have never appealed to me: Mrs Frisbee, Beatrix Potter, Disney… Anthropomorphised, twee, patronising … Oddly I do like magic realism but the idea of talking animals curdles the blood.
This, however, works. And works brilliantly.
Andrej and Tomas are fleeing Nazi persecution having witnessed their family and friends gathered and led into the forest bearing shovels. It is implicit that they are being executed. Told to flee by their mother, they do so and end up in a ruined razed village. There, Night (who almost acts in the same way as Death in The Book Thief) spots them as they slip into the only building standing: the zoo. After being knocked out by a bomb raid, Andrej and Tomas hear the animals talking. It is not clear whether the remainder of the novel is Andrej’s delusion or genuine. In fact the boundaries between narrative truth, history, fiction, dream, story and fantasy are not clear throughout the book.
The animals tell their stories to the children and whether we truly believe them – for example, the lioness appeared to have ended up in the zoo after she mauled the bride of the hunter who had stolen her – in my opinion, becomes irrelevant. Because the stories have power. A truth that exists beyond pedantic accuracy.
I can see many people reacting to this novel negatively and seeing only superficial meanings: zoos are bad; wars are horrible. The heart of the book, however, is deeper than that: it is in the beautiful lyricism of the prose (some of the sentences are truly stunning!) and in the power and value of story telling.
This book has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2012. As has Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls in which the eponymous Monster tells Conor, the main character, three stories in exchange for a story back from Conor. Hartnett’s tale shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of war; Ness’ shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of a parent’s illness. Both books are stunning!