Friday, December 17, 2010

All the Lonely People

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
In “The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise,” Julia Stuart puts forth a fun and fantastical novel set in modern day England, but decorated with its checkered and humorous history.
Balthazar Jones is Beefeater. In England, this is a distinguished post held by retirees of the Queen’s guard. Part of Balthazar’s duty is to guard and live in the old tower that held many prisoners, and consequently many beheadings and other grizzly executions handed down by the monarchy. While he stands guard awaiting any question from the tourists, he developed the curious hobby of studying the rainfall of England. He has classified numerous types of rainfall, and collects them in perfume vials, much to his wife’s displeasure.
In the first one hundred pages, we get acquainted with Balthazar and his wife, Hebe, and even more interestingly, the history of this tower. Hebe works for the London Underground, and holds the many items lost on the tube train by the travelers. Everything including ashes of the deceased and a glass eye, which Hebe’s coworker indulges a game of marbles with, have been lost and reclaimed. But, Hebe and Balthazar lost one piece of their lives that cannot be retraced: their young child Milo, who took them twenty hard years to conceive.
While the quirky characters with quirky names all seem like a part of the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby, the book does not fall too deeply into pity or drama. Even though there is plenty of suffering, the prose has a typically stiff upper lip and offbeat humor the English are noted for. In the beginning, some of the jokes are easily missed, they are so subtle, but as the reader gets a rhythm for the prose, the chuckles roll forth. This reads like a classic Jane Austin novel, and is in the same league as Peter Mayle’s works that include “A Year in Provence” and “The Vintage Caper.”
As the marriage hits some rocky spots, other characters fall in love and perform exorcisms on the haunted portions of the tower, the story lines kick into high gear after a hundred pages. Every character is delightfully strange, the tower seems to collect sad and strange histories, and at the same time, the reader wonders if it is the tower that makes these lives so strange. As a menagerie of the Queen’s pets are moved in, and under Balthazar’s care, this quirky and humane “dramedy” deepens.
“The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise” is a clever means to scale back at life’s challenges. It allows the distractions and absurd details we all encounter to distract us from the difficulties that life often imposes, and permits the reader to laugh in the face of despair. The prose is playful, light and frothy, and with a bite just like a fine chocolate mousse. It takes a little time to get used to the English humor and style, but any history or Jane Austin fan will devour this with delight. This is Stuart’s follow up novel to “Matchmaker of Perigord.” (August 2010, Double Day Books)
Photo caption: Book cover for “The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise” by Julia Stuart. (Courtesy photo)