Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, by Julia Stuart

It is, contrary to this visitor's expectation, a little difficult to feel the full weight of history when visiting the Tower of London. Maybe it's the conveyor belt they make you stand on to see the Crown Jewels, or maybe it's the hordes of other tourists blandly staring at yet another suit of armor. The complex can feel just a bit silly, belying its almost millennium of weighty history.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Julia Stuart's novel is quite silly, filled with a frolicking bearded pig, a tail-less centenarian tortoise, and an erotica-writing clergyman, among other oddities, but still drenched with history and emotion. Stuart takes us into the almost-cloistered lives of the Beefeaters who care for the tower and its ghosts, where we meet Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater stumbling through a thick depression after the death of his only child. Balthazar lives with his beloved wife and Mrs. Cook, a family heirloom who claims descent from Captain Cook's own tortoise and carries her home with her as she makes her slow trek across the Tower Grounds.

None of the Tower's inhabitants seem to have life figured out. Balthazar and his wife Hebe Jones are each drowning alone in their grief. The owner of the Tower's occupants-only pub suspects that she earned more than just a disappointed heart from her fling with a Spaniard. The chapel's reverend fears he will never free his dwelling from the evil occupation of yellow-toothed rats. And, worst of all, the Queen worries that visitor numbers at the Tower are down, just as she is in need of a new location for her personal menagerie.

The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is one of Stuart's greatest strengths here, and the result is a touching, if light, novel. She also sprinkles in fun bits of history - like the story of Ranulf Flambard, the Tower's first notable occupant and first escapee. This is certainly an enjoyable and charming read, particularly if you're a fan of British history and quirks.

Isn't the cover just adorable? Image lifted from Book Covers Anonymous, where you can also see the UK cover.

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma