Saturday, May 5, 2012

Book Review: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett


The Midnight Zoo is an exceptional acheivement. I have to start with this sentence because I have to make it clear from the outset that there is technically next to nothing wrong with this novel. It is breathtakingly well written. It seamlessly mixes the everyday with the magical: you can call it magical realism in fact, with its talking animals and descriptions of events that go far beyond what the term 'flights of fancy' can cover. And it's not all style over substance: there's a strong, timeless, moral message at its core.

So I should love it, no? Well, technically I should, yes. Yet something keeps me from doing so. It is, I'm afraid, a book I find a lot easier to admire than to love.

The Midnight Zoo is the story of two Romany brothers, fleeing from an unknown peril. They stumble across a town in ruins, bombed in to oblivion and devoid of life. More remarkably, they find a zoo, populated with a colourful cast of (as mentioned previously) talking animals, ranging from a noble, quick tempered lionness to a kangaroo with a nervous disposition. The animals have been worn down not just by their captivity but the man-made horrors they have witnessed. The brothers, plus their baby sister, held in a 'secret bundle', overcome their initial shock and begin to talk to the downtrodden animals...

It sounds great doesn't it? It's got simply drawn yet very evocative illustrations and everything! And really, once again, I have to really emphasise that Hartnett is a gifted writer and deserves high praise indeed. But why am I stopping short of gushing praise? Well, my main beef is that fine prose Hartnett writes. She can certainly write a beautiful metaphor. But she does them too much for me. There is a place for purple prose, yes, but Hartnett seems so determined for her reader to admire her pretty prose at least twice a page that it becomes very, very distracting and even irritating.

A good novel isn't just about what you can do with words, kids. It should be about strong characters, thought provoking ideas and a rollicking plot too. Does Hartnett cover this? Well, ostensibly yes. In the sense that Andrej and Tomas, the two brothers, very much come across like Felix from Morris Gleitzman's Once series, so they tick the sympathetic kid in peril box. And there is plenty of damning indictments on the follies of man: the fact that this is set in a war torn country, and its two brothers are of Romany descent, should give you some idea about what one of its major themes is. And yes, of course I wanted to find out what happened to them and the animals in the end.

It's's just so pleased with itself. So sure that it's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (with apologies to Dave Eggers) that occasionally, just occasionally, those flowery phrases become overwritten and embarassing, the characters become a bit flat, and the plot, yes, does get a predictable. Admittedly, Hartnett manages a rousing conclusion, but then she would. Like I say, she's a fine writer. I almost feel like I have to apologise for the simple reason that I know my opinion is definitely a minority one. Do I think this deserves the Carnegie medal? Nope. Will it win it? I think it has an excellent chance, yes.                


  1. Excellent and thoughtful review, Joe. Yes, as you described it, the novel does sound like a fantastic read (rather like the sound of talking animals) but...uh oh - too full of herself, huh? Hmmm...I still think you've made me want to read it so I will :-)

  2. Thanks Susan. I'm sure there are very probably books out there where the writing within is even more in love with itself! I'd just heard such great things about this book, and really wanted to love it, but it let me down a bit.

    But would recommend it though. It's a good read, just not the great one most people say it is, in my opinion.

  3. hi Joe. I have just finished reading this book and I have to say the writing overwhelmed me with its metaphors and similies and other literary motifs. It's an English teacher's dream!
    I feel I should be impressed but it's too much!

  4. Hi Sandra,

    Yes, I know what you mean. As a school librarian the last thing I want to do is foist on to kids books that may remind them of being in the classroom!

    A great story well told should always comes first. Fancy prose should always be subsidary to that. In my opinion!