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Off the Shelves: Tower, Zoo and Tortoise a thought-provoking parable
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The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

By Julia Stuart

Four out of five bookmarks

This week's novel, an enjoyable and humorous fiction entitled The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart, is based on the history of the Tower of London and of the live animal gifts given to the Queen over the decades.

The book took me by surprise; judging by the synopsis, I was expecting something in a Monty Python vein of comedy. The characters and story sounded so peculiar (and even a little risqué), it was the variety of "unusual" I like to read. Yet this novel also takes itself seriously, and has a human genuineness to it that is touching and, at times, heartbreaking.

Stuart's story centers around Balthazar Jones, who is a Beefeater, a nickname given to the guardians-turned-tour guides of the Tower of London. He has gradually become more reclusive and distant from his wife, Hebe, ever since the death of their 11-year-old son, Milo, and now he has developed an obsessive compulsive habit of collecting rain.

His life only becomes more complicated when the Palace decides to transfer the Queen's royal menagerie from the London Zoo to the Tower, and appoints Balthazar as keeper of the royal animals (a decision solely based on the fact that the Joneses own and care for a 181-year-old tortoise named Mrs. Cook).

As soon as the animals are delivered, fiascos ensue one by one, as Balthazar and the others try to keep everything under the radar of the Palace and the international press. As Balthazar struggles with his crumbling marriage, his mourning of his son, and the madness of the royal menagerie, he must find a way to reconnect to his wife as well as face the darkest truths about himself.

The novel intertwines other subplots as well, including an introverted reverend's romantic love for a landlady, from whom he must hide the secret of the erotic fiction that he pens; a brooding Ravenmaster's scandalous affair; and an unlikely courtship between Hebe's flighty co-worker, Valerie, and a ticket inspector of "limited height."

"The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise" got me thinking about the comforting, even insight-giving quality that animals can have on us. Balthazar, for example, creates bonds with the zoo animals that give him a focus and purpose while he deals with his separation from his wife. In particular, he sympathizes with the menagerie's albatross, which is so distraught over being parted from its mate that it continuously cries out and loses its feathers.

Balthazar is able to identify with the animals in a manner that he can't identify with the people around him, though several of the other characters are having relationship problems as well. One reoccurring joke of the book is how various people claim to understand the pain of Balthazar's loss of his son, by saying they have recently lost a family pet. Balthazar realizes how fellow humans can't truly understand him, yet the animals have a better sense of what he is going through — even the bearded pig that likes to play with Balthazar can tell when he needs consoling.

Stuart's tender handling of her characters encourages the reader to invest continued interest in all the different relationships and plots, and I found myself supporting all the characters in their endeavors (with the exception of one or two less reputable characters, and in that case I couldn't wait for them to get their just desserts).

In particular, Stuart's way of illustrating people's humanity through their bonds with animals makes The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise a great novel for discussion, and for reflection on the importance of connecting with all living things in the world around us.

 Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.