Sometimes you read a blurb and you look at a cover and you expect to read the book and forget about it in less than a week feeling nothing more than lukewarm affection towards the characters and the story. The Zoo by Christopher Wilson looks like one of these books but once you start reading it The Zoo offers a pleasant surprise as it certainly delivers a good story and memorable characters in less than 250 pages. In times of political unrest and abundance of satirical pieces Wilson shifts the focus from America and Britain towards Russia in the 1950s.
Communism is a topic that has been discussed time and time again but Wilson shows us the last weeks of Josef Stalin’s life through the eyes of a twelve-year-old Yuri thus shining a new light on Stalin’s death. Yuri, who has a left-brain damage after a road accident, is the narrator of the story in The Zoo. He is young, he is likeable and his simple narration of his life and relationships really pulls at the heartstring of the reader. Yuri lives with his father in a zoo and his father is an elephant specialist. In the beginning of the book the reader learns that his mother is one of the many victims of the regime and although Yuri hopes to eventually be reunited with her and later on with his missing father by the last page of the book the reader is aware that this is not going to happen. Yuri leads a simple life with the occasional abuse from his classmates until one evening when his whole life changes. He and his dad are taken to no other but the Iron Man, Josef Stalin, who is at death’s door. The main action revolves around Yuri becoming a food-taster for the dying man and the story spans over no more than a few weeks. The plotlines become somewhat repetitive as Yuri spends his days with Stalin but even this repetition, albeit somewhat anti-climactic, reveals the terror of the Stalinist regime as well as the everyday life of a disabled person in communist Russia. The casual remarks of death and disappearances, poisons and treasons become a daily routine for Yuri and his never wavering positive attitude is heart-breaking at times. Yuri is definitely the best aspect of the book as it is his lively, optimistic demeanour that wins the heart of the reader. The reader becomes emotionally invested in young Yuri because he is the embodiment of something simple, innocent and pure amidst all the ugliness and death of the communist regime.
Every reader is more or less aware of the figure of Stalin and the atrocities he did throughout his life but Wilson presents a fresh angle to explore these topics and Yuri is the perfect character to present the reader with the dying Stalin and the inner workings of the Iron Man. Yuri’s innocence and honesty clashes starkly with his surroundings thus presenting a ray of hope for the days and years to come after Stalin’s death. Life under communist regime is the main topic of The Zoo but it is worth mentioning that Wilson’s book also highlights the topic of disability and he does so through Yuri evoking great empathy and sympathy from the reader; a feat that not every writer can always achieve.
There is a lot more that happens in Wilson’s novel and the book is definitely worth reading. Although stories like this one have been told before and the topic of communism has been used so many times that nowadays it has become a cliché, Wilson’s book is a breath of fresh air. The genius of The Zoo lies in the subtle hints and remarks rather than an open exploration of the horror of those years. Even if the reader has no interest in Russia, communism and the figure of Josef Stalin, Wilson’s writing will still definitely catch the interest of most people because of its simple, universal topics that are told through a great, young narrator who is bound to win everyone’s hearts.
The Zoo is available now, published by Faber & Faber.