Book Review: Night of the Animals by Bill Broun

In this imaginative debut, the tale of Noah’s Ark is brilliantly recast as a story of fate and family, set in a near-future London.

Over the course of a single night in 2052, a homeless man named Cuthbert Handley sets out on an astonishing quest: to release the animals of the London Zoo. As a young boy, Cuthbert’s grandmother had told him he inherited a magical ability to communicate with the animal world—a gift she called the Wonderments. Ever since his older brother’s death in childhood, Cuthbert has heard voices. These maddening whispers must be the Wonderments, he believes, and recently they have promised to reunite him with his lost brother and bring about the coming of a Lord of Animals . . . if he fulfills this curious request.

Cuthbert flickers in and out of awareness throughout his desperate pursuit. But his grand plan is not the only thing that threatens to disturb the collective unease of the city. Around him is greater turmoil, as the rest of the world anxiously anticipates the rise of a suicide cult set on destroying the world’s animals along with themselves. Meanwhile, Cuthbert doggedly roams the zoo, cutting open the enclosures, while pressing the animals for information about his brother.

Just as this unlikely yet loveable hero begins to release the animals, the cult’s members flood the city’s streets. Has Cuthbert succeeded in harnessing the power of the Wonderments, or has he only added to the chaos—and sealed these innocent animals’ fates? Night of the Animals is an enchanting and inventive tale that explores the boundaries of reality, the ghosts of love and trauma, and the power of redemption.

This is the last time I listen to a Library Journal book review. I regret paying so much for this book. This is technically a DNF, though I did skim every page. I think skimming it made it make just as much sense as it would wasting 100+ more hours on this story.

Basically the plot is: Old drug-addict man hears “voices” of animals and wants to let them out of the last zoo on earth. Sad, right? Except these are basically the last animals on earth too. Sadder, right? He is going to let them out and justice will be served? Meh.

That’s hard to tell. You don’t really understand  what the heck is going on in this version of the world. The world building is never fully realized. It’s dangerous but not dangerous. It’s weird but not weird. It’s real but not real. This story is just about as incoherent as the drug-addicted MC. And I don’t mean the accents the characters “speak” in. I have no complaint in that. But the flow and train of thought is so slapdash and unispired I wanted to fall asleep every five pages or so.

But back to the zoo.

That last zoo, of course, is in London. How more imperial can you get? How more Anglocentric can you get? How much more colonial could you get? Well, let me tell you, Broun could have gotten a lot more all of the above and still had a better story. He doesn’t use these opportunities to any satisfying degree. If at all (I don’t know, I was skimming. If YOU know, give me page numbers, maybe?).

In fact, he seems to ignore colonialism, the ripest fruit ready to be picked apart by an examination of The Zoo Mentality.

Dear God am I angry. Not only is this a 500-page debut of a novel which makes me question how the hell it was published when no minority author would likely get the same deal, but the story is terrible. This is now my number one example of White Male Mediocrity. This is the kind of book that gets labeled “magical realism” to make it seem more literary when really it is just genre fiction wrapped around a lazy deus ex machina.

I’m so freaking angry.

“Finally, as animals begin to escape the zoo and wreak havoc on London, we enter a realm of pure pulp. Cuthbert’s Doctor Doolittle powers begin to seem more and more real. The Christ of the Otters shows up. Cults infiltrate the government. We find out that Prince Harry killed his older brother William and is now ruling England with an iron fist. Aliens arrive. Strangers turn out to be long-lost relatives. A lady turns into a tree. Prince Harry — now Harry9 — has a death ray that bends the very fabric of time. It’s all presented very matter-of-factly: Yes, of course there are aliens. What kind of book did you think you were reading?

Then the animals are recaptured. And just as suddenly, the chaos subsides and all the conventions of pulp fade away. Those long-lost relatives turn out not to be genetically related after all. The animals stop talking. The aliens disappear.

Are we meant to understand that it all literally happened — that there were aliens and talking animals and ladies turning into trees? Or was it all in Cuthbert’s addled brain?

It’s not clear, but the richness of the ambiguity just adds to the book’s sense of sweeping melancholy. What Cuthbert wants, more than anything, is to return to the English forest of legend, and for just one night, it might have happened. Or then again, it might not have.”

Beyond the purple prose and “telling, not showing,”  the false advertising of this book leaves me angry. Noah’s Ark is mentioned in relation to the Zoo-as-Concept, but there is nothing profound that comes of it. I have read the story of Noah’s Ark. I do not see the similarities beyond Zoo-as-Ark. Thus, the synopsis should not say ” In this imaginative debut, the tale of Noah’s Ark is brilliantly recast as a story of fate and family, set in a near-future London.

I am so, so freaking angry.

Like, I get it. I do. The whole “fading” culture and dialect thing can be paralleled to the fading species on the earth. Except why the crap are they fading? What is your statement on this? WHAT. That it’s sad? That’s it? That’s all you got?

OF COURSE a book sold as a serious story about animals is given to the white man. Of course. Of course this thick pile of poo is the best they could publish. Nothing really about animal rights, about how zoos are a colonialist construct, about how we can better treat them now in the present. Nothing. The zoo animals are just puppets that have no voice, despite the author trying his best to convince us that on some level they do speak. I feel cheated as a reader. Falsely-advertised to.

The cover has a bear. I don’t even remember a f*cking bear.

Here’s some other thoughts I had: The cult people seemed like dark versions of Gnostics. Perhaps, at a stretch, they’re a statement on PETA (who has been known to kill animals they cannot find homes for, just like the ASPCA, but on another level). Dr. Bajwa could have been cut entirely from the book. This novel could have been edited down to half its size. The story could have used more world building. The story could have used more continuity. The book was more “telling” than “showing.” Broun mentions so many plant varieties that I started to wonder if he liked plants more than animals. This book is not one I’d recommend. But I recommend reading the Vox article linked to above about it. That is all.

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