The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival From the West Bank, Amelia Thomas, Pan Macmilliam Australia, RRP $32.95
By their very nature, zoos are perverse places. No amount of clever and humane design can totally appease the unease of watching a wild animal pacing up and down a well-trodden path. Perhaps this is why zoos seem to somehow belong to another time and place.
Yet when UK journalist and Middle East correspondent Amelia Thomas found herself at the forlorn gates of a West Bank zoo where 'the air was still and smelled of petrol and spoiled hay', she stumbled upon something more than an anachronistic curiosity — the promise of a good story.
'The main gates were padlocked; a side door stood ajar,' she writes in her debut novel The Zoo on the Road to Nablus. 'Mosquitoes whined in the hot September sun. Inside the ticket booth, a toothless old zookeeper snoozed on a plastic chair ... '
For a period of 18 months Thomas shadowed Qalqilya Zoo's resident vet Dr Sami Khader as he tried valiantly to transform the crumbling zoo into an international attraction. A mammoth task at the best of times let alone in the face of endless red tape, a disinterested government and the not-so-distant din of dissidence.
In Dr Sami, Thomas has found an energetic and empathetic protagonist. Expert vet, family man and taxidermist, Dr Sami is a benevolent overseer who dispenses makeshift medicine and philosophy in equal measure.
'If something will happen, it will happen,' he would remark, time and again, as his preface to a retelling of the day's events. 'If you try to escape it, it will come for you again. This is a very important point.'
It's a theme as old as the sand that blows through Qalqilya. This is 'A Story of Survival from the West Bank' where years of conflict have turned the once prosperous West Bank farming community of 50,000 into a derelict zone, and the book is as much about a scarred community clinging to normality as it is about Dr Sami and his endeavours.
Considering her journalistic background Thomas shows admirable restraint in resisting a Lateline-type realism and, instead, delves into the annals of history. As well as informing the narrative, the conceit, if you can call it that, acts as a kind of chronological counterweight to what is essentially about a group of animals and people in freefall.
Sharply drawn and achingly lyrical, Thomas strikes the right balance between genuine affection and professional detachment, fashioning a novel in which 'under every grief and pine/runs a joy with silken twine' (William Blake).
'But how can you call that place your home, when you are trapped inside it, like a cage?' asks a character of Sami.
'The meaning of home,' Sami replied, 'is the place where you have everything you need. In Qalqilya, for me,' he drew deeply on his narghile, 'I believe this is so.'
Perhaps, then we can find comfort in the thought that for animals, as for us, home is truly where the heart is; after all, as The Zoo on the Road to Nablus so eloquently illustrates, the most impenetrable bars are not always made of iron.
Amelia Thomas' page at Lonely Planet
Jen Vuk is a freelance writer and deputy editor of the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry (currently on maternity leave).