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Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: The Zookeeper of Belfast

The Zookeeper of Belfast
Author: S. Kirk Walsh

Publisher: 30th March 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 336 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, world war II, Ireland, animals

My Rating: 4 crowns


As the bombs rain down on the city, Belfast's first ever female zookeeper must fight to save the baby elephant in her charge in this gripping, uplifting tale based on a true story.

1941. With the men away fighting, animal-lover Hettie Quin is made Belfast Zoo's first ever female zookeeper. She is put in charge of Violet, a three-year-old Indian elephant, and they soon form a special bond. With Violet at her side, Hettie can almost escape the grim reality of her life: the father who has abandoned her family; the sister who recently died; the war that's raging hundreds of miles away.

But the devastation of war is closer than she thought. When the bombs begin to rain down on the city, Hettie must gather all her courage to protect those she loves the most. Can she save Violet - and get through unscathed herself?

Based on a true story, The Zookeeper of Belfast is a gripping and uplifting tribute to what one woman's courage and tenacity can achieve in the most dire of circumstances - perfect for fans of Heather Morris, Natasha Lester, Kate Furnivall, Mandy Robotham and Fiona Valpy.

My Thoughts

 “I’ve heard about you and Violet,” Samuel said. “That you spend all your waking hours with this elephant. That you’re becoming one of those freak people who can only get along with animals. That you haven't been right in the head since your sister.”

Here is another book with a cover that draws me in being the elephant lover that I am. With all my WWII reading, I had never really encountered much with regards to the bombing of Belfast. Little did I know that this would be just the beginning of much I was  to discover from this well researched and written tale. 

Beginning in October, 1940 the reader is introduced to Hettie who is working hard to be taken seriously as a full-time zookeeper in a world where these positions are normally taken by men. Longing to care for the newly acquired elephant, Violet, she begins to form a special bond as the relationship fills a void in the many sad occurrences Hettie has had to deal with of recent times. The main theme is therefore one of coming of age for Hettie and one cannot help but sympathise for this young girl and all she endures - love, loss, grief and resilience.

 ‘He didn’t care about her. He was never going to complete her. Perhaps the truth was that no one was ever going to complete her, no one would ever be able to fill the gully of loneliness and sadness that seemed to be deepening inside her ...’

There is, however, a strong selection of subplots throughout this story that really add to the depth of engagement for the reader. Life in Ireland at this time is fraught with tension due to the war and, being set in Belfast there is of course, IRA tensions with some residents willing to support Hitler should it see the removal of the British. Add to that the ever present tension between Protestants and Catholics to add to an already volatile scene. 

‘I have no choice but to follow the directive of the Ministry of Public Security. We all know another attack by the Germans is imminent. Next time, the animals could run free and endanger the lives of Belfast’s citizens..’

Then there are the stories pertinent to running a zoo in war time - rationing, for example, if the humans were rationing then so too would it affect the animals. Would they be allowed to starve? What happens also when structural damage to the zoo occurs due to the bombing and the possibility of animals escaping is both a high possibility not to mention frightening one. How would that be dealt with? There are chapters and scenes that, readers must be warned, are absolutely heartbreaking. 

‘The calls of the animals soared into a vortex of cries and screams while the Germans continued to bomb Belfast. All of it was breaking upon Hettie  - the horror, the sadness, the loss - at once.’

This is truly a touching and well written story. The relationship between Hettie and Violet is heartfelt - all the more so because it is based on real events. To become immersed in a young girls life as she faces, not only the usual coming of age issues, but also the utter devastation of WWII and the IRA is truly tragic. I learnt so much and recommend this read should some of the facts presented be new to you too. 

 ‘Now she had Violet, and the elephant seemed to set the world on its right axis and align things in such a way that nothing else mattered ... Hettie was doing better than ever, thanks to Violet and her other charges at the zoo. Didn’t Josephine agree that animals had this power? The ability to enchant and delight during the toughest of times.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.


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