The Zookeeper's War by Steven Conte

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The Zookeeper's War by Steven Conte

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The life of a couple of zookeepers and their friends and neighbours in 1940s Berlin. The romance side has a clunky feel at times, but when the look at wartime life is more generously to the fore the qualities show through very nicely.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Quercus Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-1847247278

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What could be more heartbreaking yet unnecessary, so poignant yet irrelevant, than a zoo in wartime? For the keepers of Berlin's famous zoo, lying in the direction of the bombers' flightpaths in 1943, identified in this fiction as Axel and the once-Australian Vera, it is their home, their career, their lifestyle and their lifeline that is under attack. Outside the zoo gates life is, as you'd expect, horrific. There is a criminal black market, a vicious and inhumane approach to enslaved prisoner-of-war labourers, and a line in nasty gossip that if it reaches the wrong person in power can be deadly.

With the bombs destroying a lot of the zoo, Axel goes into an insular mode of working harder than ever at it – his plans for its future redevelopment, the work of keeping everything alive with no feed and few men able to work there, and more. It is up to Vera, then, to stay out in the wider world, and define this book, by having an affair with someone who she really shouldn't.

I have to say my heart dropped a little on realising this was devolving to a romance book, but don't get me wrong – there is nothing generic in the qualities of the writing, and definitely enough plot twists and more to keep the book definitely worthwhile reading. The milieu of Berlin is here in a lot of detail, and there must have been a lot of research by this youngish author that is worn lightly. But to me the benefit to the book of it getting so nicely into the mind and actions of Vera was somewhat countered by the lack of Axel.

I enjoyed the realistic feel to the setting, and all that that entailed, but I thought to get more from the zoo aspect. There is a more literary book missing here, one that sticks to its subject more closely. To pluck an inappropriate example from the ether, it is as if our author here would accuse Suskind of having too much perfume in Perfume, and wanted there to be more romance.

Beyond the close attention to the realities of life, thinking, morals and so much more that the book evokes so well is a pair of zookeepers who do not throughout the life of this book fully convince. It is as if their doings lose the realism, and are instead clearly fictional creations that are intended to create a fantasia of emotions in the reader. For me that didn't work as well as it might, with instead a little too much artifice involved. The writing here shows some great effort to create a high literary quality, but the base emotions and actions here show the book's qualities to be equally of a lower, baser quality.

And while I'm on about the realism of the book, what is with that awful cover? Can anyone actually believe that tiger is in the one and same photo as that of Berlin? That is for me representative of the whole novel – a clear background of finely defined devastation, and a prominent character stuck on top to provide appealing focus.

To repeat, there is nothing inherently wrong with the book, beyond the truth of wartime Berlin not being applied so well to the main protagonists. I expected a bit more from the book, but was happy enough to read on to the end, especially with the encroaching Red Army 'liberators'. And for those perhaps less familiar with World War Two in fiction, and Berlin, they could appreciate even more the depth to its recreation here. I can see that for those readers my three and a half stars might seem stingy.

We at the Bookbag are grateful for our review copy from the publishers, Quercus.

A different zoo in a different war, is approached in a very different way, in Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan.

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