The Zookeeper's Wife is the eleventh book by American author, Diane Ackerman. It is non-fiction, but often reads like a novel, a plain narrative with spurts of lush descriptive prose, for example: "In a country under a death sentence, with seasonal cues like morning light or drifting constellations hidden behind shutters, time changed shape, lost some of its elasticity, and Antonina wrote that her days grew even more ephemeral and 'brittle, like soap bubbles breaking'"
It tells the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis in 1939, the animals that aren't killed during bombing raids are stolen by Berlin zookeepers, and Jan and Antonina need something else to keep them busy. As the zoo cycles through different legitimate incarnations (pig farm, fur farm), the one business that is soon a constant, very much behind the scenes, is the concealment of Jews trying to escape the Ghetto and Nazi persecution.
After initial descriptions of the time before occupation, the bulk of the story tells of the Guests that passed through the Zabinski's Villa, both human and animal, with all their quirks, traits and oddities. Sometimes the text does get a bit bogged down in details (insect collections, sculpture, extinct species and back breeding), but the ingenuity of these brave people is amazing, and their generosity is truly uplifting. As an officer in the Home Army, and very active in the Resistance, Jan is often absent an it is up to Antonina to keep things running smoothly, and facilitate the passage of some three hundred people to safety.
"In prewar days, the villa had harboured more exotic animals, including a pair of baby otters, but the Zabinksis continued their tradition of people and animals coexisting under one roof, over and over welcoming stray animals into their lives and an already stressed household. Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true "
Ackerman's extensive research is apparent on every page, as well as in the 21 pages of notes on the chapters, the 7-page bibliography and the comprehensive index. She portrays Jan as cool under pressure, demanding and critical, while Antonina comes across as clever and intuitive, but they are hard to connect with, perhaps because Ackerman had to base her tale on diaries and notes. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this tale. A fascinating true story.
The 'voices' have their own individual style of narrative:
Mary, a young girl sailing with her parents and her new husband from England to the Colonies uses her journal to document her anguished thoughts as an outlet for her frustrations and feelings of increasing despair and isolation. So touching and exquisitely written this was by far the most compelling narrative for me;
A Texas inmate writes his (confessional) memoirs for his part in the story;
Chat transcripts of a young girl's internet conversations are used as evidence in the inmate's trial;
We hear the sad, deeply moving private and individual thoughts of a couple who are drifting ever farther apart, but remaining ever closer together; again these narratives were highly emotive and deeply moving.
Alan Turing writes letters voicing his concerns about a friend to the mother, ultimately divulging his own intimate thoughts, inner turmoils and dilemmas, again sensitive, touching and beautifully composed.
The narrators 'speak' because they have a need to be heard and understood, but they do not necessarily 'speak' to whom they really should, nor are their voices necessarily heard by their intended listener. Their private intimate divulgences may also be read out of context, misinterpreted or manipulated and used against them or people connected to them in some way by an unintended listener. Therefore, not speaking and being misunderstood becomes a common thread in this complex tale.
These totally random stories, and characters initially appear to be unconnected, however as you read on, fragments that interconnect the voices and threads begin to come together making sense as the story unravels.
I savoured and devoured this book in equal measures and genuinely didn't want it to end. Louisa Hall is a master in the art of painting vivid imagery with the written word. With stunning, sumptuous and beautiful balletic prose, I absolutely adored this novel.
Powerfully written in its complexity, and diverse in narrative style, Speak is sheer brilliance in its construction and delivery. Fans of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas', Emily St. John Mandel's 'Station Eleven' and Erin Morgenstern's 'The Night Circus' should seek this one out as a 'must read'.
It is unfathomable to believe that 'Speak' is only the second novel from the author. I'll definitely read more from Louisa Hall and will have to contain my excitement until her next book is published.
At the commencement of each chapter there are ornithological terms of reference which cleverly shadow Meri's experiences within the chapter they refer to. The writing style is gently paced, and intelligent, with beautifully constructed sentences and phrases such as,"I watched the first snowfall begin as a light, dry powder and morph into those luscious, fat, lazy flakes that sashay downward and accumulate into weighty drifts." I fell immediately under the authors spell of words and eagerly devoured the pages of the book. In another poignantly beautifully written scene where the crows say farewell to one of their own, I cried as the loss and feeling of loneliness was utterly palpable and I truly believed I understood how Meri was feeling at that particular stage of her life.
The Atomic Weight of Love is primarily a love story written and voiced by Meri about the ever changing, evolving love she feels for Alden, and then in her 40's of her love for a much younger man. I found it in turns to be heartbreaking, and infuriating due to the out dated attitudes of the times, but above all an uplifting read. There is a bittersweet quality to the story and at times it simply broke my heart.
Elizabeth Church's debut novel is an exquisite poignant tale of loyalty, trust and knowing when to let go. I truly hope there's a lot more to come from her as a writer. I'd recommend it for readers who love beautifully written literary historical fiction that will make them question their own sacrifices and accomplishments. I would also suggest it for book group readers as the multitude of topics raised throughout the book could generate some lively discussion.
Short ones lead us into more serious chapters which lengthen with the depth of the story and the times.
We are confined to the Hotel just as is the Count and I marveled at his patience, joy of living, and philosophical insights during the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia. From a grand suite of rooms to a tiny attic with him we meet many interesting characters.
Written in first person, Attorney Paula Vauss, aka Kali Jai, leads us down a winding lane of chaos, intermingling sadness, happiness, loss, redemption, love and family transformation along the way. From the days of traveling with her wild eccentric Mother to the lonely days of state placement to the "love 'um and leave 'um" lifestyle she maintains as an adult, we meet the people who hold her interest and influence her along the way. Continually paying off her "debt" to her Mother, Paula suddenly finds herself a sibling. Not once, but twice.
"You know how Karma works", is the final piece of the puzzle her dying Hindu-mythology-loving Mother leaves for her, as it changes her life forever.