June 4, 2011


by Sonya Hartnett
208 pages, Candlewick

Review by SF Winser

This is another of the YA novels on the shortlist for a prestigious Australian children's literature prize.

One of the problems in reading to a shortlist for a prize is that one stops reading as a reader, or even from the problematic viewpoint of a reviewer ('Oh, crap! I'm gonna have to say intelligent things about this for Booksquawk! Pay attention, SFW, and think about Theme and Character and Symbolism!) and starts to compare books – which were never intended for comparison – with one another. Is this book 'better' or 'more worthy' than the other books on the list? What does 'more worthy' even mean? What does better mean? Thank goodness I'm not an actual judge.

What does any of this have to do with this little work of art? A piece of writing intended for readers, not judges, and that, with no fight-training and through no fault of its own, is about to be sent into a battle royale with books about Victorian resurrectionists, graffiti artists and lesbian relationships?

It's a wholly artificial viewpoint. And I can't help but wonder if it has coloured my judgement of this book. Because let's say it straight up... I was left completely and utterly underwhelmed here. And I'm told that Hartnett is usually a good bet for YA novels.

The Midnight Zoo is a fable. It has talking animals and lost little children. But it's a harsh fable, set in WW II. Not that we are ever told this. We are never told outright that we are in Russia during the Nazi invasion – only someone with a bit of grounding in language and/or history would work that out.

The book is about three gypsy children... or Rom... or Romany... or.... ummm... I don't know what the politically correct term is right now. If I've used the wrong one, my apologies for my ignorance. The children are wandering West Russian towns, scavenging without adult supervision, through bombed ruins and surviving as best they can.

They stumble, in the midst of a flattened town, into a small zoo—just a circle of cages—with a variety of wild animals. Who talk. Some are wise, some are mad, some are pitiful. No, they're all pitiful.

They talk for a while.

We learn the short backstory of the children, the zoo and a handful of the animals. There's probably some symbolism I was too dumb to see. And then it ends.


There is some excellent, excellent writing. Hartnett catches the mythic, fabled tone really well. The characters have this feeling of symbolism that's hard to deny. But I'm left with the idea that sometimes literary novelists have forgotten that style isn't everything. I just wasn't moved. I wasn't caught. I didn't care very much. And then, just as I was building a relationship with the animal characters and finally had a proper idea of who the children were, the book abruptly finished in a rather lacklustre way.

A dark fable with the motto, if there is one, that life is short, freedom is hard, alluring and sometimes destructive and then you die.

I think Hartnett was trying to make some connections between humans and wildness. Or simply humans and animals—that the border between isn't as hard as we pretend. There's a bit of preaching against zoos. And some for zoos. Apparently, also, humans suck. And sometimes death is the only freedom you'll get... and... I don't know. I'm trying really hard to work out what Hartnett was trying to say and I either come up with 'Nothing' or 'The world is hard, we're all trapped, you can't handle freedom, death is coming.'

A bit harsh for a YA novel. For any novel. And more the over-generalised darkness I'd expect from a heavily eyeshadowed, psuedo-intellectual in a wine-bar after too many glasses of Cab Shiraz than from an insightful novelist of high calibre.

I'd rather assume that I've somehow missed the actual point. I'm happy to admit that that's possible. I already admitted that I don't think I read this book with the correct attitude of a reader. I'd love to hear other people's opinions and change my mind.

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