Monday, October 18, 2010
Balthazar Jones lives in the Tower of London along with his wife Hebe and their ancient pet tortoise. Balthazar is a Beefeater, charged with guarding the Tower from pickpockets and assisting the tourists during their visits. The problem is, since the death of his son, Balthazar has been despondent, both with his job and in his relationship with his wife. Hebe has had about all she can stand, and is very troubled by her husband's growing mental absences. When the Queen's equerry calls Balthazar into his office for a chat, the Beefeater is worried he will lose his job. But the news is far from what he expects, as the Queen has hatched a new plan to move some of the animals from the London Zoo to the Tower in order to increase tourism. Much to his surprise, Balthazar is given the responsibility of being the keeper of the animals. Now the Beefeater has to oversee the transfer of the animals from the zoo and take care to make the animals as happy as possible in their new homes. That means making sure the bearded pig gets enough playtime, the lonely albatross doesn't get depressed and the howler monkeys don't get incensed enough to flash their private parts at the guests. It's a big job for Balthazar and one that he doesn't quite know if he can handle. Living alongside him are the other quirky residents of the Tower. From the erotic story writing reverend to the morally dubious Ravenmaster, each member of the community comes to be unexpectedly involved in Balthazar's quest to create the perfect home for the relocated animals. Quirky, irreverent and packed with little known Tower history, Julia Stuart tackles the very strange story of Balthazar and his menagerie with verve and aplomb.
I was so excited to get the chance to read this book, as I read and loved Stuart's first book, The Matchmaker of Périgord, about two years ago. I think Stuart has a particular style that I enjoy and I found her second book to have very close echoes of her first book in terms of style and writing cadence. Though this book told a very different story, it was just as enjoyable as her first.
This book differed a bit from Matchmaker in that it had more of a dual emotional impact. It was light and funny, yes, but these was a bit of a darker undertone to this book in its descriptions and portrayals of Balthazar's heartbreak for his son. This gave the book a more sober feeling and ran a thread of deeper emotion through the story. Perfectly melded with the sadness and loss in the story was the close-knit absurdity that I find so enjoyable in Stuart's books. There was a lot here to laugh with and poke fun at, and at times there was almost a ribaldry to the story as well. Stuart does a great job of making this book emotionally multi-faceted, and this made Balthazar's story of the tower more reflective and realistic. There was a great symmetry between happiness and sadness that gave the book more weight and made it more of a staid read.
One of the best things about this book was the way Stuart kept an entire string of varying and interesting narrative threads relevant and fresh. There was a lot going on here but it didn't seem crowded or over-populated by crazy characters and their tales. Don't get me wrong, there was a whole lot of crazy in this book, but it wasn't overpowering and it didn't take on an unwelcome feeling of forced farce. It was intelligent comedy and was spread out in a way that made things seem natural and intricately woven. Instead of focusing on different sections of the action, the book seemed to gently scan the entire landscape of the story, focusing briefly on each character and their relationship to the Tower and each other.
I particularly enjoyed the way Stuart interspersed little known bits of Tower lore into the story. A lot of the stories about the Tower were strange and fantastic, and they really gave me something to chew on during sections of lesser action. I also think these sections were perfectly housed within the story that Stuart wanted to tell. The days from the Tower's past were no more peculiar and original than the story that was being presented, and there was a great effect of cohesion between all these aspects of the book. The only things I had known about the Tower were parts of its more sinister history, so it was fun to see it in a different light.
This was definitely one of the more entertaining books I've read in awhile, and Stuart takes it to the next level with the final scene and sentence in this wonderful little book. I think a lot of people would appreciate this frolicsome and witty tale, and for those readers who like a healthy dose of humor in their books, this would be a welcome addition to their library. I am eagerly awaiting Stuart's next book because I can't wait to see where she takes me. Recommended!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM