Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Emma's Review: The Berlin Zookeeper by Anna Stuart

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Two women. One shocking wartime secret. And a family mystery just waiting to be discovered…

Berlin Zoo, 1943: Ten-year-old Adelaide and her newborn sister are orphaned after a devastating night of bombing. Heartbroken and frightened, Adelaide runs to her mother’s closest friend, Katharina Heinroth, and the kind zookeeper takes the two little girls under her protection. As the bombing intensifies, Adelaide tries to shut out the horrors of war by caring for her tiny sister and playing with the adorable baby monkeys. But when Katharina organises a dangerous operation to enable children and animals to escape the battle-scarred city, something goes wrong. And Adelaide has to promise her adopted mother to keep a shocking secret. A secret that will change Adelaide’s life forever.

Berlin Zoo, 2019: Bethan Taylor notices the elderly lady sitting on the bench next to her seems confused, her thoughts flitting between past and present. Ada talks of her childhood, played out in an underground bunker beneath the animal enclosures during the war. As Ada’s story unfolds, Bethan is surprised to hear a name she recognises…

Katharina Heinroth is at the top of a list of German names Bethan found in a hidden compartment of her late mother’s jewellery box. Bethan’s father couldn’t tell her anything about the crumpled piece of paper and she’s been searching for the meaning ever since.

As the two women are brought together by the pain of the past can they help each other to heal? And after decades of silence, can Ada help Bethan to uncover a long-buried family mystery?

Book Links: Kindle or Paperback

Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Berlin Zookeeper  to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

The Berlin Zookeeper is a dual timeline story which focuses on the people who worked in the Berlin Zoo during World War Two as they struggle to survive the bombing by the Allies and the Russians advancing towards the city, as well as a young woman seeking answers in the present day. It’s a well written and well researched story that shines a light on an aspect of the war I had never read about before. You really wouldn’t have given any thought to a zoo during the war considering so much else was happening on a world wide scale but here Anna Stuart brings to light the subject matter very well. A shocking family history, a wartime secret and a heart-breaking loss all form the themes being explored throughout the story. The scene is set so well that you actually feel like you are at the zoo, both in the present day and the years during the war. Amidst the stories as to how the animals and the zoo itself suffered at this time is a story of bravery, courage, resilience and dedication and Bethan in the present day is determined to uncover the many answers she has as to her own personal family history.

Bethan’s mother died when she was 11 and all she now has is a list of women’s names with a hippo-shaped brooch attached to the top of the list. This is a link to her mother when she believed all connection to be lost but it only stirs up so many questions and emotions and suggests there was a lot going on in her mother’s life that she had no idea about. Her father is evasive and not willing to give her answers to the innumerable thoughts running through her mind. Who or what is he protecting? Who were the women on the list? What significance did they have in her mother’s life? Katharina Heinroth is the first name on the list and she had been the director of the zoo post World War Two and so she becomes the main character in the strand of the story that centres on the past. 

Bethan has a new and exciting job at Berlin Zoo. It means leaving her boyfriend Callum behind in England but she is determined their relationship will continue to work long distance. She feels she has been called here as the brooch must have originated from the zoo. Will she find the answers she seeks and if said answers are uncovered will a piece of her slot into place that she did not know was missing? I did enjoy the chapters set in the present day. The descriptions of the zoo, the work done there and the various people Bethan meets really helped compare and contrast to the experiences of the workers during the war. It was clear there was a significant link between Bethan’s family past and events during the war and I was as keen as Bethan to find out just what they were. Her quest had such a natural flow to it and nothing was rushed, except perhaps towards the end. Instead slowly she begins to connect the dots and piece the story together and what she uncovers is remarkable. 

Alongside Max, the head primate keeper and assistant manager, the secrets hidden in the zoo and beyond slowly start to unravel themselves. You witness Bethan coming to an understanding of where her family heritage originated and she has to comprehend an extraordinary story of bravery, loss, devastation and above all else love and sacrifice. A romance element does insert itself into her life but to be honest I wasn’t all that fussed about it. My interest was much more directed towards the story set during the war. That’s not to say Bethan’s story wasn’t well written, it was but I found the historical aspect slightly stronger than the modern day.

Having the story set in the zoo during the war years really showed how different aspects of German society dealt with what the war years were throwing at them. To be honest do we really think much about Berlin or the population of Germany as a whole during the war when we read historical fictions set during this time? I know I don’t, I’m generally more concerned about how the Allies were doing world wide or reading stories of remarkable bravery by secret agents and how the people of London coped with the Blitz etc. So this was a new slant for me and with the added strand of the animals it shone a whole new light on things for me as to how the citizens dealt with the British bombs on a practical and daily basis.

Katharina was a fantastic character. She never ever rested and time and time again she put her own needs to one side and dealt with both the human and animals issues lying at her door. The question of what made one animal or human better than any other because of where they came from was raised and provided plenty of food for thought whilst reading. Katharina shouldered many burdens. It was like the weight of the problems of those surrounding her became hers and the pressure must have been immense. Yet she never complained and was always looking for ways to find the path to lasting survival. The author created such tension, suspense, unease, danger which only increased with every turn of the page. With Katharina and the various workers forced to hide in underground bunkers as the bombs rained down on the city and the zoo that was such a landmark. Their life’s work was being destroyed, not to mention the scenes they witnessed, having such a devastating and long lasting impact. You see the situation deteriorate as they worry about the Russians coming nearer and nearer to the city but everyday life continued and they had to navigate what this would bring right to the confines of the bunker. What amazed me though was that after every bombing they surveyed the damage and losses and attempted to pick up the pieces and run the zoo as normal. It was seen as a beacon of hope at a time when all everything seemed devoid of faith and belief.

I did think there were an awful lot of characters introduced in the sections in the past and I was trying to keep track of who was who and how they connected to each other. A little list of characters perhaps at the beginning of the book that you could refer back to would have been welcome. I say this because coming towards the end when things did take on a frantic pace as Bethan edged ever closer to the truth I became confused and found myself at times struggling to join the pieces together as quickly as Bethan did. But what is eventually uncovered is an amazing story that showed that Katharina when needed most became a matriarch, protector and saviour to so many. She shouldered the burden of those all around her and knew that survival of so many depended on her. Her motivation was strong and never wavered despite tragedy and loss beating down the gates of the zoo. As for how the past and the present link together well that was emotional and very well developed. Things came full circle very nicely and highlighted what strong women they were at a time when the world was falling apart.

The Berlin Zookeeper is Anna Stuart’s first foray into historical fiction and it proved to be an enjoyable, eye opening read with both a strong plot and cast of characters. It gave the reader a totally different perspective on the time period. The author had clearly done much detailed research and enjoyed bringing her story with such a fascinating setting and wide range of characters to life. Already there is news of a new book to come from Anna Stuart this year. The Secret Diary publishes in August and having read the blurb it has already whetted my appetite for what is to come from this new and exciting author. 

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