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!