I purchased Julia Stuart’s The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise after reading a negative review of the book on Amazon, serving as an example of how negative publicity can be good for an author. As detailed in my post, Lessons From a Negative Review on Amazon, the one-star Amazon review decried the mismatch between the cover art and the content of the book. Essentially, a mother had given this book to her young daughter without realizing, as stated plainly in the blurb, that the novel features a clergyman who writes erotica and a philandering ravenmaster among its eclectic cast of characters.
I decided to read the book myself, but the novel sat untouched on my Kindle for a few weeks because, having read the blurb, I knew the book dealt with a theme that I find particularly unnerving: the loss of a young child. Now that I am a mother, I empathize too much with fictional parents. The losses they suffer, even in fiction, reduce my enjoyment of the work. While I do not shy away from reading about difficult subjects, including interpersonal violence and bullying, I prefer fiction that offers me an escape from life’s anxieties as opposed to exacerbating them.
But I can’t hold my personal quirks against Julia Stuart’s book, and so I read it with an open mind.
The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise features an array of characters who live in the Tower of London: a beefeater and his wife who have lost their son, a lonely clergyman who writes erotica, and an unfaithful ravenmaster obsessed with birds, among other interconnected individuals. The beefeater is given the task of overseeing the Queen’s menagerie, a task that opens fresh wounds. The eccentric personalities and animal antics give the novel a whimsical tone that fits the cartoonish cover art, but it is emphatically not a children’s book. It’s a novel-length story that addresses emotional themes, particularly loss and heartache, and includes some sexually suggestive material (not explicit).
This novel turned out to be a burdensome reading experience, as a result of its long sentences, excess of “SAT words” when less pretentious words would have been clearer, lack of italics to indicate the use of foreign words, and the occasional appearance of vague pronouns that may force some readers to pause a moment to resolve the ambiguity.
If you’re looking for a taste of the novel, here are a few representative sentences:
- Hebe Jones remained in the same erect position for the following eleven minutes as she pointed out that while their lavatory may very well be connected to an historic garderobe, the monstrous smell of petrified effluent left by centuries of prisoners that hung like a fog in their home whenever the drains blocked was not protected by any royal decree.
- [Mrs. Cook, a Tortoise] was regarded more as a loose-bowelled geriatric relative with a propensity for absconding, such a protracted habit that nobody ever realised she had vanished until weeks later, as her sedate trajectory across the room was still burnt on their memories.
- As the canary hopped from perch to perch in its cage, [Ruby Dore] returned to her stool behind the bar and finished writing an announcement that the thirty-five year ban on Monopoly had been lifted. It had been introduced by her father, incensed that the Tower doctor had continued playing while his* wife gave birth on the kitchen floor above (* added).
Overall, I found the combination of whimsy and gut-wrenching grief unsettling. Many of the characters felt like caricatures of people, characters who felt human only in the moments related to profound loss. This book is similar to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I reviewed last week, and yet these books affected me differently. Joyce’s novel also deals with grief, but it reveals the source of the grief gradually and provides more context about the characters’ motivations and personal journeys toward healing.
I can see how Stuart’s novel contains the nuts and bolts of a great novel: interesting characters, fascinating setting, compelling themes, and an engaging plot. However, due to its disheartening primary theme and the author’s convoluted writing style, this novel turned out not to be a great choice for me. Many others have loved it. Here are two positive reviews I’ve come across: Covered in Flour and Under My Appletree.