Thursday, May 03, 2012

Fiction Review: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

Recently, my neighborhood book group read a novel that has been on my want-to-read list for a long time: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.  This novel is an import from the UK that features warmth, romance, and a great sense of humor.

Balthazar Jones works as a guard in traditional dress (aka a Beefeater) at the Tower of London.  Like all Tower employees, he lives within the tourist attraction with his wife, Hebe, and their 181-year old tortoise (this is apparently true, that all Tower employees live within its walls).  All sorts of quirky characters live within this odd housing development: a bachelor minister who is secretly a popular author of erotica, the Ravenmaster who is cheating on his wife, the single owner of the Tower residents’ pub who has just found out she is pregnant, and more.  Into this eccentric mix is a new twist:  the Queen has decided to move her royal menagerie, featuring all sorts of exotic animals given to her as gifts from foreign leaders, to the Tower, and since Balthazar has taken such good care of his ancient tortoise, he is put in charge.

Hebe’s job is even more amusing.  She works at the London Underground’s Department of Lost Things, where she and her co-worker record each lost item as it is brought in, from false teeth (they currently have 457 sets!) to a locked safe to a life-sized inflatable doll, until someone comes to claim them.  This was my favorite part of the book, when Hebe was at work, surrounded by all of these ridiculous items, her story told in a straightforward way with that particular British knack for subtle (and not-so) humor.

However, this novel is not just about laughs (though there are plenty); it has considerable emotional depth.  Balthazar and Hebe recently lost their young son and are each grieving in their own way, becoming more and more distant from each other right when they each need the other the most.  Meanwhile, Reverend Septimus Drew desperately wants to be married and start his own family but doesn’t know how to approach the woman he is secretly in love with (yes, a bit of irony there since he is so adept at writing racy romances!). 

It’s a novel about relationships and love and marriage, about what brings people together and tears them apart, set amidst the silliness of the Tower’s new animal residents and the outrageous items brought into Hebe’s workplace.  Stuart seamlessly blends humor and tenderness into a story that is both light and earnest.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and have been recommending it to both my American and British friends.  Just writing about it now makes me want to read it again!

304 pages, Doubleday

NOTE:  The novel was originally published in the UK under the title Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo.

Although the book was republished for an American audience, it retains its unique British voice.  Several times while reading it, I had to quiz my online UK friends on various terms (though not so much that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book).  In case you were wondering,  a swede in the UK is what we call a rutabaga here, and it is apparently enjoyed by bearded pigs.


1 comment:

  1. Ooh. I'm in the UK but haven't heard of this one, will look out for it in the library. :)