Sonya Hartnett is well regarded as one of Australia’s literary treasures, so it may come as a surprise to learn that before now I had never been able to finish one of her books. The Midnight Zoo is set in what is probably World War One, though the conflict is never specifically named, and follows two Romany brothers, Andrej and Tomas, as they with their infant sister stumble into a demolished village. Untouched by bombing, the only structure left in the town is a zoo, and the children’s story of loss and uncertainty is soon paralleled by that of the animals they come to befriend.
Much of the story is told through vivid flashbacks, recollections or dream sequences, which somehow seem to ground the work at the same time as emphasising those elements which give it the feel of a modern day fable. The boys’ separation from their parents is especially vivid amongst the backdrop of a zoo full of talking animals.
Hartnett folds the more fantastical elements of the novel into the story seamlessly. The reader doesn’t question the existence of these things, especially in a world which has already been turned upside down, although I do question the wisdom of introducing the ‘horseman of night’ when he doesn’t do anything except interrupt the narration occasionally.
This novel has an incredibly deft touch with prose. The language is smooth, and lyrical and the story simple, yet effective. Though the novel does use some vocabulary which may be tricky for more inexperienced readers, it just begs to be read aloud.