Monday, 2 November 2015

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise / Julia Stuart

2.5 stars out of 5
Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live there). It’s no easy job living and working in the tourist attraction in present-day London.

Among the eccentric characters who call the Tower’s maze of ancient buildings and spiral staircases home are the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore, who just found out she’s pregnant; portly Valerie Jennings, who is falling for ticket inspector Arthur Catnip; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew, who secretly pens a series of principled erot­ica; and the philandering Ravenmaster, aiming to avenge the death of one of his insufferable ravens.

When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest­ing. Penguins escape, giraffes are stolen, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent people running for their lives. Balthazar is in charge and things are not exactly running smoothly. Then Hebe decides to leave him and his beloved tortoise “runs” away. 

I liked this book. But I couldn’t help, while reading it, thinking that I should like it more. It has many elements that often provide me with reading pleasure. The animals for instance—the poor wandering albatross that is missing its mate; the monkeys wildly flashing their junk at inopportune times; the missing penguins.

Plus, this is a book about grief—about Balthazar and Hebe Jones grieving the loss of their son, Milo. And grieving for a child has potential to either pull a couple closer together or push them completely apart. It’s exquisitely painful to experience and almost as painful to watch, and here we are as readers, voyeurs to this couple’s pain.

I’ve never lost a child, but my parents were killed in a car accident and I think I know a thing or two about grief. I know that it was two fuzzy rabbits who kept me going in those days of depression following my parents’ deaths. Someone had to get up each morning to feed the bunnies and since I live alone, that someone had to be me. Once I was up and the rabbits were cared for, I would then think, “I might as well go to work, now that I’m up.” Without those two furry critters, I’m not sure how often I would have made it out of bed. So I could relate to Balthazar’s communing with the animals of the Royal Menagerie.

The book is cute—almost to the point of being too cute. Lots of side stories get started—Valerie Jennings and Arthur Catnip’s romance, the Ravenmaster’s clandestine adultery, Reverend Drew’s secret career of writing erotic literature. They each get quickly, and for me, unsatisfactorily resolved at the end of the novel. Perhaps they were meant to lighten the mood in a book about grief? Each situation seems to be meant to be comic, but they are also real problems for the characters involved. The eccentricities that I would usually find charming were instead irritating—if the book is truly about grieving and communicating, why distract from that story with this fluff?

Everyone has secrets—and their situations could be improved with less secrecy. Julia Stuart does have a talent for writing adorable, eccentric characters, but somehow her books just rub me the wrong way. I wish that I liked them more than I do.

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