My book group met this afternoon to discuss Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it turns out we did have some things to discuss, in spite of my suspicions that we’d all say we loved it and then not have anything further to add. It turns out the other members of my book group didn’t all love it as much as I did. Some felt that all the attention paid to animals was troubling given what was happening to the humans in the story, and others felt the narrative jumped around in awkward ways and wasn’t as developed in places as it could have been. The conversation was interesting to me because while I liked the book a lot, what the others said did speak to some doubts that were flickering around in my mind as I read, particularly the point about structure and narration. As we talked, I was able to think through more clearly what my responses really meant.
Ackerman is doing something complicated in the way she narrates the story. She has a short explanation at the book’s beginning about how she uses her sources, but after that she disappears completely as a narrator until the very end. So the book reads something like a novel with a distant third person narrator who only occasionally gives the reader a glimpse into what is happening in the mind of Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife. Those glimpses come from Antonina’s journal, but it’s easy to forget as you’re reading along that Ackerman was working from sources, since she rarely discusses them in detail. Some people in my group felt the book would have worked better if it were pushed further in the direction of a novel, with more about the inner lives of the characters. And I was wondering if it might have worked better if Ackerman had put herself into the narrative more by discussing the sources and the research directly.
But as it is, I think the book captures an important quality. Without the obvious guiding hand of a narrator, the kind of narrator who gives shape and meaning to the story, it feels jumbled and little chaotic, which is the right kind of feeling to capture, given the book’s subject matter. Ackerman seems determined to let the story speak for itself and not to become too involved in telling the reader what to make of it. There’s a lot of room to draw your own conclusions and respond in your own way. Her largely exterior point of view with only little bits and pieces of interior feeling leaves room for you to imagine what the people were feeling on your own. The narrator doesn’t fill in the blanks for you. This strikes me as respectful of the reader, and it also leaves room for some mystery — because it is a kind of mystery, I think, how and why people did what they did when they were risking their lives to save others.