Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise: Review

The Tower, the Zoo and, the Tortoise: A Novel
By Julia Stuart
Published by Doubleday
Published in 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-53328-7
(Originally published in Great Britain in paperback as Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo)

I own this copy which, incidentally, is a First American Edition. I wasn't paid for this review but owning a kind-of-first-edition makes up for that. Also it's September's book club book.

None of us know what life will hold for us. When we're young and invincible, we have no clue what curve balls life will throw at us. This was certainly true for Hebe and Balthazar Jones, whose once intense love for each other has been torn to shreds by the loss of their only son, Milo. Thrown apart by their grief, they mourn separately in the same dank tower within the Tower of London where Balthazar is a Beefeater (the official guardian of the Tower of London sort, not the steak-scoffing variety). Hebe is unable to comprehend her husband's apparent lack of grief for the son he had loved so dearly and the obsession he has harboured ever since that terrible day that Milo passed away with collecting various types of rainfall in Egyptian perfume bottles.

When Balthazar is asked to take charge of the relocation of animals that were gifts from various heads of state to HRH Queen Elizabeth on account of his owning the oldest tortoise in the world, he is initially reluctant. He already has enough trouble making it through each day as it is but takes on the responsibilities as he believes it will ensure he won't be fired for his recent appalling record with catching pickpockets. As time passes, he relearns his ability to love through his connection with the animals, including a bearded pig that was not supposed to be taken to the Tower, and the heart that had been frozen with grief starts to thaw.

The drama of at the Tower of London is not limited to the Joneses alone. Ruby Dore, landlady of the Rack and Ruin, the pub within the Tower walls has just discovered she has returned from a holiday to Psain with a little more baggage than she had hoped for. Meanwhile, Reverend Septimus Drew, who is madly in love with Ruby, is living out a secret life in his spare time between preaching and exorcising the various residential areas of the Towers. Outside of the Tower walls there is Valerie Jennings, a woman of 'considerable girth' who works alongside Hebe at the London Underground Lost and Found office, meticulously logging all found items and attempting to reconnect them with their owners. Pursuing her is the tattooed ticket inspector, Arthur Catnip, who only gets the nerve up to ask her out when he comes to the counter to find her stuck in the front end of a pantomime horse's costume.

This novel is a charming blend of mad-cap characters, their messy lives, British history, and a bit of romance. It's a book that will draw you in and create a world that you won't want to leave. I absolutely adored this book from beginning to end, even though I did sometimes find the descriptions a little heavy-handed or repetitive in parts (the phrase 'fulsome buttocks' should never be used more than once within a novel, it ruins its effectiveness). If you're looking for something that is a bit mad that's fun but still has emotional resonance then this is the book for you. It's a gem to rival the crown jewels themselves.


  1. Great review, sounds like a good read, thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Toyin,

    Thanks! It's a wonderful book - got mixed reviews at my book club meeting but I adored it.

  3. I'm not sure how I missed this review when you first posted it. I *loved* this book. So nice to see a book that sparkles and charms without compromising its literary merit, don't you think?

    I didn't know that the UK edition had a different title from the one I knew.

  4. As the crowe flies - Thanks! Me too, probably my favourite read of 2011 I would say (unless something astonishing comes along in the next 6 weeks!!) I absolutely agree with you that it sparkled. Glad to hear someone else loved it as much as I did, I was quite sad when my book club didn't like it as much as I did.