"The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise," by Julia Stuart
Usually, one must wait in frustratingly long lines to see the treasures of the Tower of London. But a delightfully zany and touching novel, "The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise," by the British writer Julia Stuart, has jumped the queue to take readers on a fictional romp through the Tower's realm.
Set in contemporary London, the story has a cast of characters one might expect to find in a Monty Python film. Tales of actual beheadings, apparition sightings and peculiar personages pepper its pages, such as the story about "the woman who was sent to the Tower in the thirteenth century for rejecting the advances of King John, who subsequently poisoned her with an egg." And "the bearded Lord Nithsdale [who] escaped from the Tower in a skirt." The juxtaposition of these historic happenings with Stuart's invented story in the present day makes for a droll display of human eccentricities.
The plot centers on Beefeater Balthazar Jones, his Greek wife, Hebe, and their 181-year-old pet tortoise. Balthazar and Hebe's marriage is frayed by grief over their son, who died years earlier at the age of 11. Their apartment inside the Tower (where all Beefeaters must live) is damp and dismal, and often during evenings together they speak to each other "as if the place were filled with a million fluttering butterflies that neither dared disturb." During his workday, Balthazar has to please tourists who are "interested only in methods of torture, executions, and the whereabouts of the lavatories."
Hebe, who leaves the Tower to work in London Underground's Lost Property Office, deals with items like "the life-size inflatable doll, a deep red hole for a mouth, which no one had yet dared to claim . . . a Russian typewriter . . . sixteen jars of preserved ginger . . . yet another abandoned wheelchair." Her most persistent customer is Samuel Crapper, and there are frequent visits from Arthur Catnip, who can "detect a fare dodger at a hundred paces."
Other wacky characters include Septimus Drew, the Tower chaplain who wins an erotic fiction award; the womanizing Ravenmaster who plots to ruin Balthazar; and Ruby Dore, a barmaid at the Tower's Rack & Ruin pub.
Things take a hilarious turn when Balthazar is suddenly appointed overseer of the Tower's newly acquired menagerie of exotic animals given to the queen by foreign dignitaries. Will Hebe leave Balthazar? Is their pet tortoise safe? Never fear. With her deft and charming style, Stuart brings this comic story to a satisfying and heartwarming end.
Zukerman is a flutist, writer, arts administrator and founder of ClassicalGenie.com.