A Man in the Zoo by David Garnett

A man in the zoo

Earlier this year I fell in love with David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox. I had been strong-minded and not bought a copy but ordered it up from the library. But after reading I knew that I had to have a copy – and to track down the author’s other work. So I was thrilled to uncover a tatty volume in a bargain box. Not just Lady Into Fox, but a new and unknown novella too – A Man in the Zoo.

I was a little worried though. Two novellas with animal themes pairs together. Might the second be just a reworking or a retread. I should have had more faith. There are common reference points, but A Man in the Zoo is an altogether different tale.

The story opens with a young couple – John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett – visiting the zoo. Sadly they have fallen out. Josephine’s parents do not approve of John. He wants them to be married regardless, but she is reluctant to fall out with her family.

Exasperated, John compares his situation with the caged animals they are viewing. And decides to join them as an exhibit.

Yes, really!  David Garnett has the wonderful talent of making such an absurd idea seem entirely possible.

John’s proposal is accepted by the Zoo’s Board, and he packs his bags and takes up residence in a new cage in the Ape-house. Visitors are intrigued, and flock to see the new exhibit. Occupants of neighbouring cages are first curious, then accepting, but sometimes jealous of the interest that John excites.

At first  Josephine reacts with horror and refuses to even contemplate visiting the zoo, but eventually she is drawn there and reacts with concern and then interest.

So what happens in the end? That would be telling! The tale has many twists and turns in its 115 pages on the way to before reaching a conclusion that is entirely right.

A Man in the Zoo is, on the surface a simple fable. But there is much more than that below the surface, and so much insight into the human condition and how human society works. That sounds a little heavy, but trust me, the book is anything but.

David Garnett’s knack of making the unbelievable seem entirely possible means that the story works from start to finish.  His prose is clear, simple and so very readable. His storytelling is just perfect.

I have a couple more of his novellas on the shelf, and I am looking forward to them all the more now.

And just one more thing. My copy of A Man in the Zoo came complete with a newspaper cutting that a previous owner must have tucked away. It suggests there was a proposal that Charlie Chaplin make a film of A Man in the Zoo. I’m so sorry that it came to nothing – it could have been quite wonderful!

8 responses

  1. I LOVE finding things in books! And this one sounds like a good story. I have never even heard of this author, but I’ll keep him on my browse list 🙂

  2. Kathy – It is such a sensible way to tuck away relevant bits of paper – I really should get into the habit of doing the same for future generations!

    Staci – My local secondhand bookshop does a lot of house clearances and I have found some wonderful old books in his bargain boxes over the years.

    Claire – It is lovely. David Garnett would sit well in the Persephone or the Bloomsbury Group list.

    Aarti – Only one of David Garnett’s books – Lady Into Fox – is in print sadly. It’s worth looking out for and as he was popular in his day there should be a reasonable supply of used copies kicking about.

  3. My copy of Lady Into Fox came with this – I didn’t think it quite as good, but still showed Garnett’s astonishing imagination and, as you said, great ability to use seemingly ridiculous concepts to uncover deeper truths about humanity. But fun at the same time!

  4. Pingback: A Man in the Zoo & Lady Into Fox | Paperback Reader

  5. Pingback: Finding one’s inner animal? | Annabel's House of Books

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