Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart
I’d picked this book up in a bookshop, and put it down again, thinking it might be a bit twee. Then I was offered a copy by the publisher and after reading the press release, decided to give it a try – I’m glad I did, for it was nothing like my first impression at all, and I loved it more and more the further I read. The first pleasant surprise was to find that it was although as a novel set in the Tower of London and was thus steeped in history, it wasn’t a historical novel at all, but set in the present day…
The Queen keeps being given gifts of animals, and has decided to reinstitute the historic Royal Menagerie at the Tower rather than keep them at London Zoo. Balthazar Jones is the Beefeater selected to be the head keeper. The Tower of London is home to the cadre of Yeomen Guards, mostly retired soldiers, and their families – they actually live inside the tower – occupying the towers and cottages that once housed prisoners – at night the grounds are full of ghosts. The Yeomen have their own pub too within the walls, the running of which had been handed down over the centuries to Ruby, the current landlady. Then there is the chaplain Septimus Drew who has the secret of being a successful erotic novelist, writing under a female pen-name. All the money he makes goes into a home for fallen women. There is also the Ravenmaster – the Yeoman charged with keeping the Tower’s flock of blackest birds, and maintaining the myth that if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.
Then we have the Jones family. Balthazar, Hebe, a Grecian beauty who works in the London Underground Lost Property Office, and very much present by his absence, their dead twelve year old son, Milo. Ever since the night he died, Balthazar and Hebe have been racked with grief and it is driving them apart. Right from the start, once I learned of Milo’s death I was hoping to find out what happened, and also that Balthazar and Hebe would find each other again for their relationship is at the centre of the novel. The colourful cast of characters provides a perfect backdrop to their story, yet the bits I enjoyed most were those involving Balthazar and Hebe when they were apart – together their pain is tough to handle, but at work they come to life… Hebe and her colleague Valerie truly care about reuniting as many owners and their lost property as possible.
She switched on the kettle on top of the safe that no-one had been able to open since its discovery on the Circle Line five years ago. Opening the fridge, currently the subject of a standoff about whose turn it was to clean, she took out a carton of milk and raised it to her nose. Satisfied that the boisterous odour came from something no longer recognisable on the lower shelf, she poured some into a teacup. As she waited for the water to boil, the woman who felt the weight of loss more acutely than most gazed with regret at the graveyard of forgotten belongings on metal shelves stretching far into the distance, covered in a shroud of dust.
Balthazar too is a sensitive soul and proves to be a caring keeper where before he was rubbish at catching pickpockets. In particular he feels for the lonely albatross who is pining for its mate, and strikes up a peculiar friendship with a bearded pig which he secretly borrowed from the zoo. The Queen’s Royal Menagerie is in good hands, although events will conspire to make it difficult for him.
This novel was gentle and touching, yet with some lovely comedic interludes. It was slightly slow to take off, and it took me a couple of chapters to get used to the author’s descriptive style with its interesting choice of adjectives and historical digressions, but before long, I was already really caring about Balthazar and Hebe. An satisfying and enjoyable read. (8/10) Sent by the publisher.