11 June 2012
Review 45: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
Well, this has been another pleasant surprise on the Carnegie shortlist. As I'm not generally a fan of animal stories, I was not expecting to particularly enjoy this but I wasn't expecting a moving and haunting story of family and loss. Hartnett's writing is truly beautiful, I am in awe of her talent and would definitely like to read more of her work. This is familiar territory, being set in World War II, but Harnett offers a totally unique take on it which balances fantasy and magic with the cruel truths of the war.
First Line: "If the old bell had been hanging in the steeple it would have rung to announce midnight, twelve solemn iron klongs which would have woken the villagers from their sleep and startled any small creature new to the village and unaccustomed to the noise."
Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie prize shortlist.
Who I would recommend it to: If you like the Once series by Morris Gleitzman or The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Fans of lyrical, haunting writing.
This was one of the shortlist that I had put off reading as it had a number of warning signs for me: animals, dreary cover and set in a war. Without meaning to sound heartless, I've read so many books set in wars, particularly World War II and they are often emotionally manipulative without having any real story or heart or point. But the star of this is Hartnett's magical language and characters and the war is merely the setting.
The Midnight Zoo tells the story of two brothers, Andrej and Tomas, Romany gypsies who are travelling with their baby sister through the war-ravaged cities and countryside of Eastern Europe.They happen across a zoo in a deserted, bombed out town and realise there are still animals in the cages that have been abandoned and the boys and the animals begin to share their stories with each other. As I said, Hartnett's way with words is magical, and as she describes the way that the animals feel locked in their cages, I got goosebumps. Here are two extracts that particularly moved me,
"The ocean called out to the seal from the moment it was born. Its ancestors swam there; its kin swim there today. It remembers the ocean because its blood and bones cannot forget it. Somewhere out there, there's a gap in the water, a place which is hollow because the seal isn't there."
"No bird in a cage ever speaks. What is there to say? The sky is everywhere, churning above its head, blue and endless, calling out to it. But the caged bird can't answer anything except I cannot. And those words are so painful to its feathery spirit that a caged bird prefers to say nothing."
And there are many more but you don't want to read a review full of quotes, go and read the book and experience the whole thing for yourself. The story is full of hope and love but also of longing and sadness and cruelty. There is a section near the end that was first uplifting and beautiful before crashing down and pretty much breaking my heart. It is magical though. Also in its favour is that fact that my students have responded well to it, they found it a bit hard to get into and it is a little slow to get started and quite wordy and descriptive but once the brothers found the zoo they fell in love with it.
I am a school librarian and currently we are shadowing the Carnegie award at our Book Club. The Midnight Zoo actually inspired an activity we did as I was struck by how much I thought Mina, the main character and narrator of My Name is Mina which is also shortlisted, would like The Midnight Zoo. This provoked an activity where we decided which book on the shortlist the protagonists in all the shortlisted books would choose to win which got us a fascinating new look at how the students have responded to the books.
This is a wonderful novel that surprised me with its beauty. It was definitely in contention for being my favourite on the shortlist. It is a love story to the strength of human spirit and to loyalty and love itself.