The Midnight Zoo
This novel, powerfully underpinned by Jonathan McNaught's haunting and often disturbing illustrations, is set in wartime in an unspecified time and place, giving it relevance and added universality, if such were needed. It follows the journey to the zoo of young Romani siblings Andrej, Tomas and baby Wilma, as, in keeping with their mother's last injunction to ‘Run’. Obeying their own instincts for survival, they flee the senseless savagery and bigotry of a group of marauding soldiers attracted from afar by a ‘scarlet kite, red and clean as a knife wound’; the innocence of the toy transformed into a harbinger of slaughter is characteristic of the author's masterful use of language.
The zoo, the only edifice still standing in the war-torn village, is home to a small group of animals imbued with the gift of language; they, like the children, are innocent, vulnerable outsiders, victims of war who have been robbed of their protectors and carers. The creatures' incarceration in their individual cages gives rise to notions of freedom intimately bound up with ideas of maturation. The essential freedom, the work suggests, is not that of the body, but rather of the spirit and imagination. It is these freedoms that will bring the fulfilment for which we long.
Hartnett's fiction is poetic, profound and timeless. Her narrative would convince even the most sceptical of discerning adult readers that some of what is produced for the young is amongst the very best literature currently being written.
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