‘In the dark I can sense The Zoo.
I can’t see it, but I know it is there. In the black its blacker and I can imagine the outlines of The Figurines and The Animals: all spikes and claws and weapons and sharp edges.
I can hear it too.’
I was gripped from the very beginning of The Zoo, Jamie Mollart’s dark and intriguing debut. Its protagonist, James Marlowe, is a successful advertising director working on a major new campaign with a bank. From the outside James is someone who seemingly has it all – a career, friends, a wife and son, but beneath the surface James is haunted by ‘The Zoo’
The novel is a first person narrative, and it alternates between James’ struggles as he resides in a mental illness ward and the events leading up to his admittance there. This certainly keeps up the reader’s interest as we slowly piece together the events which drove him to his downfall. We glimpse a man who is a success in the corporate world but whose life begins to collapse following his increasing reliance on alcohol and drugs. His erratic behaviour also results in a fraught relationship with his wife and son. This look at family relationships and how they can be affected by external influences is one of the key themes. Ultimately it is about evaluating what is important to us, what we value most in life.
Away from James’ journey in his working life we see him try to piece it back together on the ward. We gradually unravel the stories behind a collection of characters which make up the Zoo. I loved how these characters were haunting his conscious yet were representative of people who featured in his life, who have had some influence on him, good or bad. As the novel progresses we learn more about each character, how James sees them, and how they are significant to his life.
The novel is darkly compelling with the scenes on the ward being particularly harrowing and it is here I feel the novel is at its most powerful. James is not the most likeable of characters and yet I felt empathy for him. I was scared for him and wanted him to break free of the torment. Despite his neglect of his family and his irresponsible behaviour, I wanted him to find the light. The descriptions of James’ experiences in the hospital were vivid and you can really get a sense of the fear he is faced with right from the very first page. The Zoo is ever-present; if he couldn’t see it he could still hear it or feel it there.
In addition to its portrayal of mental illness and relationships, The Zoo also covers other thought-provoking issues centred around the modern, corporate world, a world which James himself begins to question. It looks at how we can be influenced, subconsciously, by advertising. How our daily lives can be affected without us realising. There is also the look at how some of the things we take for granted everyday have a human cost, which is largely hidden.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s a story that makes you consider what’s important in life. Sometimes in modern life we end up working all hours, trying to conform to society’s ideal of balancing a career with a buzzing social life and family life when ultimately it’s the people closest to us who matter the most. The Zoo is a moving story of life, love and loss, and one man’s hope of redemption.