In 1587, Mary Stuart, aka Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her head on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. Perhaps inspired by the fate of her namesake, author Julia Stuart has given us The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, the story of a place where heads used to roll.

As Stuart imagines the Tower of London in the time of the current Queen Elizabeth, some things have changed; today’s Tower residents sometimes have the chance to repair incomplete and damaged lives, and even dismemberment is not always fatal. As per a whim of the Queen, the animals she has received as state gifts, hitherto kept at the London Zoo, are transferred to the Tower and displayed. Chaos ensues. Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater guide of little zoological talent, is put in charge of the royal menagerie, much to his chagrin and the amusement of his fellow Tower residents. His relationship with his wife, Hebe, becomes increasingly strained. And the primal instincts of the Tower residents, a vibrant crew, begin to run wild. Sometimes passion is the hardest thing to tame.

Stuart’s tale is a comedy of realms—her Tower, her England—where people and things are out of place. Modern people and zoo animals live in a medieval fortress. Hebe’s job is to reunite loss-prone subway riders with their property; this includes such things as funerary ashes and gigolos’ diaries.

Stuart’s humor, and her pathos, are dryly English; people say things like “I quite understand, I’m useless with a saw myself” when discussing dismemberment. They endure loss and displacement with a stiff upper lip, but go slightly mad in the process. Sometimes it takes an escaped Komodo dragon for people to begin sorting out their lives. The menagerie’s coming eventually brings on changes, mostly for the better, in a number of lives. The animals and people in this story end up about where they need to be. Their travels there make for a ripping and very amusing tale. 

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