An 'elephant angel' on the streets of Belfast

  • The Zookeeper of Belfast, by S. Kirk Walsh. Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99.

Where is the best place to hide an elephant from the long arm of the law amidst a wartime bombing blitz? That's one of the easier dilemmas confronting young Hettie Quin in this undemanding yet always diverting novel that is the literary equivalent of a Sunday evening television serial best watched with a pot of tea and a dish of chocolate biscuits.

It's Belfast in the latter months of 1940 and Hettie is learning the ropes as the city's first female zookeeper. Among her tasks is taking charge of a jumbo called Violet, who has recently arrived off the docks from Ceylon to become the zoo's premier attraction.

Taking care of an elephant is a doddle compared to Hettie's other travails. Her father has upped sticks and left for the arms of another woman in England, her sister is dead, and mum depressed, only getting out of bed to make watery cabbage stew.

And then there's Liam, her late sister's tearaway husband with strong political inclinations, pitiless zoo owners and the ever-present fear of war. It only gets worse.

When German bombs start falling the authorities decree that all the zoo animals be put down, and Hettie high-tails it with Violet to save her from the same grisly fate that befell the puma and the bears.

There are some wonderfully worked sequences in the book, including one where Hettie shimmies between two suitors on the dancefloor to the sounds of a famous chanteuse. Where Hettie ends up concealing such a hard-to-stash animal is clever.

The most beautifully rendered character in the book is the city of Belfast itself: its tenements, back streets, music halls, trams, markets, public baths and grand Victorian architecture.

I'm from Northern Ireland originally and valued how Kirk Walsh, for the most part, doesn't fall into the trap that befalls many foreign authors writing about this place in turning characters into woollen-jumper wearing political zealots. The author, a Texan, has a keen ear for dialogue. What her characters say sounds authentic.

It's far from faultless but it's an always engaging piece of historical fiction.

This story An 'elephant angel' on the streets of Belfast first appeared on The Canberra Times.