World War II, Eastern Europe: Tomas and his younger brother, Andrej, have fled their Romany encampment which has been besieged by the Germans; they carry Wilma, their baby sister, in a sack. In an abandoned, bombed-out town, the children discover a zoo. In it are a wolf and an eagle, a monkey, bear, lioness, seal, chamois and llama. The animals tell their stories to the children as they try to begin to understand what has become of their lives and, when they try to figure out a way to release the animals, what it means to be free.
Tomas and Andrej are brothers. Hiding in the forest they watched the Romany camp they live in be pulled apart and dragged off by Nazi soldiers. They carry with them their baby sister Wilma. They are lost and confused not understanding the world that they live in. Then they come across a zoo on the outskirts of a destroyed village, but this isn’t any old zoo, in this zoo the animals can talk.
I really struggled with this book. Had it not been on the Carnegie shortlist I’m not sure I would have finished it. It took me three weeks to read, an incredibly long time for me, especially as at 192 pages this is a really short book. I’m not sure why I struggled so much. This is a beautifully written, thought provoking book, from a distance I can tell that it is incredibly well written. That, however, I think may be the problem, I view this book from a distance. All through the book I felt emotionally detached; I didn’t ‘feel’ the storyline or the characters. I kept waiting for it to suddenly click, but it never did. It shouldn’t be a problem with the writing, this is a book that has been crafted rather than written so I’m assuming it’s the subject matter. I am not an animal lover so maybe it is that. I also found the idea of two young boys, at the ages of 10 and 12, looking after a baby fairly unbelievable. But then this may well appeal to the intended audience and after all this is a book where animals can talk so is based it a world out of the realms of the ordinary anyway.
The story does have a magical, almost dreamlike quality and this is highlighted by the very simple but beautiful illustrations. The copy that I read was in hardback (another thing I usually dislike!) but I can’t imagine how this would translate to a paperback. I’m assuming the publishers feel the same given the time lapse between the publication of the hardback and now. Visually this is a stunningly striking book.
Verdict: Beautifully written and visually stunning. A magical, dreamlike story that I just didn’t quite connect with emotionally.
Reviewed by Alison