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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Zoo

Christopher Wilson

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To purchase The Zoo

Title: The Zoo
Author: Christopher Wilson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 230 pages
Availability: The Zoo - US
The Zoo - UK
The Zoo - Canada
Guten Morgen, Genosse Elefant - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : Stalin's final days creatively reimagined

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times B 22/7/2017 John Boyne
The Observer . 23/7/2017 Anita Sethi
Literary Review . 8/2017 Ludo Cinelli
The Spectator A 22/7/2017 James Walton

  From the Reviews:
  • "The success of a novel like this depends largely on the voice of its narrator and Yuri is a jovial guide through the dying days of Stalinism. (...) The sinister elements to The Zoo sit comfortably alongside the comedy. (...) If there are flaws to The Zoo it’s that it quickly becomes repetitive. (...) (A)s a satire on the slipping away of all-encompassing power, it makes for an entertaining, if unremarkable, read." - John Boyne, Irish Times

  • "Engrossing and very moving." - Anita Sethi, The Observer

  • "Christopher Wilson’s new novel is much easier to enjoy than to categorise. And ‘enjoy’ is definitely the right word, even though The Zoo tackles subject matter that should, by rights, make for a punishingly bleak read. (...) Wilson’s heightened realism and perfect control of tone mean that Stalin’s often comic monstrosity never makes him any less monstrous. (...) (S)trange and brilliant" - James Walton, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Zoo is narrated by damaged twelve-year-old Yuri Romanovich Zipit, the son of a professor of veterinary sciences attached to 'The Kapital Zoo' -- the Moscow Zoo. (His mother, a doctor, has been absent from the household since he was five.) Yuri has been in some accidents, which really did a number on him; as he explains:

     I am damaged. But only in my body. And mind. Not my spirit, which is strong and unbroken.
       Physically everything more or less healed, but: "there are some breaks in my brain, mostly in my thinking". He is different from the other boys -- guileless, simple-seeming, taking things at face value. He also has an effect on people that makes him rather uncomfortable:
I attract confessions. Strongly. From all directions.
     I only have to show my face in public and total strangers form an orderly line, like a kvass queue, to spill their secrets into my ears.
       Writing in 1954, Yuri's story begins the year before, when his father is taken away by two officers from the Ministry of State Security on a medical call -- and insists on taking his son along with him, explaining that the simple child can't care for himself.
       Dad is a veterinarian, but the patient he is being asked to see is human -- a very important human. Having lost all faith in his doctors: "Now this patient will only trust himself to veterinarians" -- and he is important enough that even such strange whims are humored: whatever he says goes.
       Even Yuri notes the strong resemblance the patient has to 'Comrade Iron-Man'; of course, it is Stalin, already seriously ill and having recently suffered a stroke. Of course, there's little that dad can do, and he is soon enough removed from the scene as well. But the sick old man takes a shine to the simple boy and appoints him: 'Food-Taster, Technician First Class', assigned to sample everything before the old man consumes it. (This is not a new position, but those who previously held the position all proved to be (highly): "allergic to toxins" (which surely one would hope would be a job-requirement).)
       So Yuri finds himself in Stalin's innermost circles during Stalin's final days, and witnesses the power struggles, Stalin's final outbursts, and the great leader's apparent ignominious end. Yuri befriends several of Stalin's stand-ins -- those who have to look and play the part when the great leader has to be seen somewhere he can't be -- and several from Stalin's inner circle want Yuri to essentially spy on the dying man for them. Eventually, Stalin also gives Yuri a letter -- a last will and testament, in which he names his successor --, a document whose existence others know of and are very interested in, notably Lavrentiy Beria (called Bruhah here).
       Stalin's death both is and isn't quite like the historical record, and even with Comrade Iron-Man out of the way Yuri isn't out of the woods yet. His (possible) knowledge of the letter, and where it is hidden, means he remains a person of interest. But his damaged body and simple-appearing mind and ways prove to be (just) enough to get him out of that situation, and eventually he does wind up back home.
       As so often in his fiction, Wilson chooses a narrator and perspective (and voice) that isn't entirely straightforward. Yuri is, in some ways, simple, and he fails to make some connections between events that are (presented so they are) obvious to the reader; he is a wise-fool/from-the-mouths-of-babes type character. One can see the temptation to employ such a narrator: as Khrushchev ('Krushka') observes:
You see it all. Yet you understand nothing.
       Yuri is a naïf, but he isn't entirely unworldly, and understands some of the roles he must play in the bizarre world that is the Soviet Union of his times. His father drilled some advice into him, and he does tread carefully enough when he has to. But he also remains blind -- willfully so, it sometimes can seem -- to many aspects of the horrible reality around him.
       Wilson handles this peculiar voice and character quite well, and the narrative arguably justifies it: only such a character could see and relate what he does -- could be in, and tell, this story --, and the slightly removed sense of his perceptions -- he rarely reacts with or displays the usual emotions -- are an effective way of presenting some of the horribly dark things touched upon here. Such limited characters can be annoying, but Yuri is used effectively enough to (mostly) avoid that.
       The Soviet Union of those times, Stalin's death, and the power change-over are also a difficult subject-matter to treat in any novel way: it's very familiar territory, and Wilson's initial playful twists -- the veterinarian on call, the Stalin-stand-ins -- seem rather small, limited additions in his attempt to tell the story anew. Credit then that he does more with it eventually, and that he does offer a nice twist or two to the historical record.
       Gently charming -- thanks to Yuri's objective account and simple understanding and interpretations -- The Zoo is also a grimly dark tale. No surprise there -- Stalin ! Beria ! 1953 ! -- and yet it's an unsettling contrast. So much of the tale proceeds so gently, and yet it is full of the worst kinds of heartbreak (and a good dose of sheer evil as well). Tragedy and comedy are a tough mix; Wilson balances them very well on occasion, especially towards the end of the book, with its more unusual turns, but there's also an uncomfortable feel to much of the novel as it teeters between the two.
       Ultimately, The Zoo does impress. Wilson captures a voice very well, and employs it effectively -- but it's an odd story to (re-)tell, so familiar, in countless variations, that it arguably demands something more radical than this almost understated approach to really hit its mark. Wilson's understated fiction is moving and effective, but, despite its weighty theme and subject matter, still feels somewhat slight.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 July 2017

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The Zoo: Reviews: Chris(topher) Wilson: Other books by Chris Wilson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Chris Wilson was born November 18, 1949 in London. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He has worked as a research psychologist and was lecturer at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. He is the author of a number of novels, including Baa, Fou, and Gallimauf's Gospel.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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