For too long, reviews on this blog have been, well, too long: self-indulgent, off-putting screeds that do little to actually promote the book they’re describing. With a good book there’s always a lot to talk about, but the irony is, the more I tell you now, the fewer surprises you get later. Sam Gayton’s latest middle-grade novel, The Last Zoo, is definitely a reading experience all the better for exploring, disorientatedly, with minimal spoilers.
From the first page, you’re at sea in all sorts of ways: aboard a zoo, miles out from the mainland, on our world but after a great cataclysm. Let’s just say they call ours the i-era, a time of people taking photos of their lunch, who were complacent about the powerful technology they used every day. But this disaster isn’t the only thing separating our world from that of the zoo. After the cataclysm came a huge and wonderfully bizarre solution, and with it, a turning from reason toward imagination and all the possibilities of impossibility.
Have you ever wondered what unicorn poo smells like?
The enclosure we’re on in the first, dream-filled chapter of this surreal tale – and it is one of several, each with their own impossible occupants – is overseen by a young keeper called Pia. She’s a self-proclaimed klutz, whose friends and fellow keepers call ‘Catastro-P’, and from the very start, something’s gone wrong on her watch. Pia is responsible – she may even be to blame – and the more she tries to put things right, the wronger they get.
Pia is an endlessly endearing character: I found myself picturing her as a Jamie Hewlett cartoon character, as she worries and wonders her way through increasingly unpredictable events. Each chapter yields a new puzzle piece and a new set of questions, leaving the reader to find connections between huge sci-fi and fantasy concepts. It shares some of the feel of Philip Reeve’s Railhead, and also some of the spirit of Pokemon and Minecraft (which gets a name-check, though these post-internet kids don’t get the reference).
I don’t mean that as a slight, either: it shares those franchises’ themes of collaboration, world-building and the joy of creativity. Typical of Gayton’s linguistic conjuring is the name given to this impossible breed of creatures: a voilá, the voilá, some voilá (as in One of Our Voilá is Missing!). It captures the thrill of invention (literary, scientific, societal) as a conjuring trick that dazzles, but also – as the novel goes on to explore – has the potential to confuse our understanding of the world.
A couple of character moments didn’t quite work for me, but that’s in part due to the frenetic pace and wild inventiveness. This is a novel of ideas, and not just noisy, apocalyptic, winged ideas either. There are all sorts of beautiful, disquieting ideas here: the whisper you can’t distinguish from your own internal monologue, the beings which can only be apprehended by the emotions they inspire, the question of humanity as ‘problem’ and how it can be dealt with. If you know someone who’s going to love the His Dark Materials when they’re ready for it, The Last Zoo would be a great place to take them first.
The Last Zoo is published by Anderson Press. You can order it from Waterstones here, or go and ask that nice person at the independent bookshop round the corner. This post is illustrated with the work of Leonora Carrington.