The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise
by Julia Stuart
(Doubleday, $24.95) ISBN 978-0-385-53328-7
****
This quirky little novel is being marketed as this year’s version of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but besides the fact that the two books were penned by British authors I don’t really see the comparison.  The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise reads more like a fable than a novel, and although it deals with serious themes of love and loss, the characters aren’t well-developed enough to fully engage the reader.  Still, it offers a unique story and quite a few chuckles. 

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater, or more accurately, a Yeoman Warder, who lives and works in the Tower of London, where he serves as a guard and tour guide.  His wife, Hebe Jones (both characters are always referred to by their full names), toils at the London Underground’s Lost Property Office, where she and her colleague Valerie Jennings seek to reunite individuals with their misplaced treasures.  Although Balthazar and Hebe were once madly in love, their marriage has floundered in the three years since the sudden death of their son Milo.  Now they barely speak to each other, and the only witness to their hostile silence is Mrs. Cook, the 181 year old tortoise who has been in Balthazar Jones’ family for generations.   

His job performance has been steadily slipping ever since Milo died, so when Balthazar Jones is summoned by a representative of the Queen and given a special responsibility, he knows he can’t decline the honor.  The Tower of London is to be the new home for the numerous animals given to the Queen by foreign dignitaries, and Balthazar, caretaker of the world’s oldest tortoise, is the natural choice to be in charge.  And so, only a few short weeks later, Balthazar, and the rest of the Yeoman Warders, find themselves sharing the Tower with a malodorous zorilla (not a typo – look it up), a golden snub-nosed monkey who resembles the Duchess of York, two lovebirds who can’t stand each other, some rather vulgar marmosets, a deadly Komodo dragon, and a highly strung Etruscan shrew.   

The presence of the new Tower menagerie puts even more of a strain on Balthazar Jones and Hebe Jones’ marriage. It also has a ripple effect on their neighbors and co-workers, including the Reverend Septimus Drew, who has somewhat accidentally become a successful erotic fiction author; Ruby Dore, the Tower’s barmaid with a shameful secret; Valerie Jennings, who has given up on love but not on elevenses; the Yeoman Gaoler, who is haunted by the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh; and a smarmy, adulterous Ravenmaster, whose charges are suspected of relieving Mrs. Cook of her tail many years ago.  Some of these characters will find love, others will find solace, and still others will find revenge.   

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is very British; the humor is wry and the pathos is understated. The two are often intertwined, as when  Balthazar Jones calls in sick from heartache but can only offer up as an excuse that he is suffering from “a surfeit of lampreys.” Stuart’s propensity to use the same phrases repeatedly gives the story a fairy tale quality that slightly deadens the emotional resonance of Balthazar and Hebe’s grief.  The insertion of numerous stories about the Tower’s unlucky inhabitants over the years (some of which are too bizarre to be factual) leaves less time to get to know the characters, and as a result some of them remain little more than caricatures.  However, there is no denying the punch in the gut one feels as Hebe Jones realizes that the colors in Milo’s drawing of his family members have started to fade, or her anguished cry when notified that Milo has died of natural causes: “What’s so natural about a child dying before his parents?”  

If you’re tired of the same old thing, I can promise you that The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is unlike anything else you will read this year.  You may find it charming or you may think it veers perilously close to cloying, but there’s no denying its message that hope can triumph over grief.   

--Susan Scribner


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