Sonya Hartnett has storytelling running in her veins, and The Midnight Zoo is only the first of her books I've read.
Born the second of six children in Australia, Hartnett wrote her first book aged 13, and it was published two years later. She has won the extremely prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Guardian Children's Book Award. From the way The Midnight Zoo reads, I would imagine that she will be around and writing timeless, thoughtful books for a long time yet.
The story follows two young boys as they cross a war-torn landscape together - one older brother, and one younger. They come across a zoo, untouched by the destruction that war has laid down all around them. A motley collection of creatures, doomed to forever be trapped behind bars, whilst the two boys roam the landscape, yet endlessly flee an unseen enemy. No details of what war is going on are revealed, whilst equally no idea of time is really given. Although the actions of the soldiers as recalled by the boys may seem to be that of Nazis to me, I get the feeling that's just my perception and you could read the tale to be set in many different worlds. The story is more about the timeless question of freedom and war - if you're in a cage but without predators are you more or less free than those being hunted outside the bars? Why do wars happen at all? Is it, as one character in the book asserts, that one person must have something their way and then they will stop at nothing to have it so? Can it be someone else's war if you are living within it?
The story was so mind meltingly beautifully written that I often read pages over for a second time, just to enjoy the turn of phrase again. In a world where all your reading is done with your face in someone's armpit on the tube, I often find myself reading at high speed, and reading stories that are high action. It almost makes the journey go quicker and mentally it sort of fits with the rush of being on the tube. So this rare joy of taking my time reading almost made me forget where I was and how long I'd been standing with an umbrella stabbing me in the elbow etc. It really is gorgeously written.
The book also reminded me slightly of The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. In the way that powerful animals and their interaction with man in a war torn landscape is described, it certainly has similarities, but also the vividness of the descriptions.
I think this story is an incredible gift to children's books - it made me stop and wonder, it got me pondering, and it was written with an incredible richness. I can absolutely see how this book made the Carnegie shortlist - well done to Walker again for another stunning tale for children. http://www.walker.co.uk/The-Midnight-Zoo-9781406331493.aspx