I can’t think of the words to properly convey the magnitude of this truly wonderful book by Sonya Hartnett. It is magnificently crafted, impeccably written and a pleasure to read. While it is aimed at a young adult audience, I thought it was incredibly poignant and valuable for an adult audience too.
The story begins in an abandoned, war-torn village. The protagonists, we discover, are two brothers who are roaming the land trying to survive the ravages of war. We are not told anything about the broader context but the fact that these two boys are gypsies seems to indicate that the book is set in the Second World War.
The boys stumble upon an abandoned zoo complete with talking animals and so unfolds a narrative about the nature of freedom and the vastness of the cages which capture both the animals and, in a metaphorical sense, the boys themselves.
The story is littered with stellar questions: “Do you think it remembers the ocean?” Andrej asks about the seal who swims back and forth across the small width of his pool. All that Andrej and his brother are experiencing is expressed through the animals and their own experience of captivity.
It would hurt less if it had forgotten, but the bear replied, ‘Of course it remembers. Its mind is filed with the crashing of waves. The ocean called out to it from the moment it was born. Its ancestors swam there; its kin swim there today. It remembers the ocean because its blood and bones cannot forget it. Somewhere out there, there’s a gap in the water, a place which is hollow because the seal isn’t there.’… ‘Is there a gap in the mountains somewhere?’ he asked.
And there are beautiful silences too; silences filled with the imaginings of two young boys and a troupe of animals. In some ways, this book reminded me of Tea Obreht’s ‘The Tiger’s Wife’, except this book has more of a magical quality to it, a more intense perspective on the world, on mankind and on how we behave… As the bear says: “A bear does what a bear must do to keep itself alive. But a man does many things that he has no need to do.”
There are so many magical moments in this book that it is difficult to narrow it down to a brief review which doesn’t contain any spoilers. I will only say that this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime books that resonates for a long time after the last page is read and the book itself is closed.