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historical fiction review
Historical Fiction,  Review

The Berlin Zookeeper by Anna Stuart (Book Review) // historical fiction that gave different view to Germany in WWII

Hello readers! It’s my stop during the blog tour for new historical fiction, The Berlin Zookeeper by Anna Stuart, and I’m pleased to share my review of this amazing book. Many thanks to Sarah for tour invite and publisher for providing review copy via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

historical fiction review

The Berlin Zookeeper by Anna Stuart

Publication Date : May 4th 2021

Publisher : Bookouture

Genre : Historical Fiction

Pages : 350

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Synopsis

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?

An unforgettable and heart-wrenching novel of a brave orphan girl and a shocking wartime secret. Inspired by a true WW2 story and perfect for fans of Orphan Train, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Alice Network.

Review

The Berlin Zookeeper (previous title, The Zookeeper’s Daughter) was powerful historical fiction that revolved around the Berlin Zoo and its keepers. The story was about life of Zookeepers, what Berlin zoo went through during the wartime, struggle and life of women keepers, Germans who didn’t support war, belongingness, friendship, family, unconditional love, courage and survival.

Writing was gripping, emotive and beautiful that gave vivid and precise picture of Berlin in WWII. It was written in alternative dual timeline third person narrative, Katherine narrating what zoo went through from 1943 to 1945 and Bethan narrating present picture of Berlin Zoo in 2019 along with her mystery list.

Plot was interesting. It started with 11 yrs. old Bethan discovering list with names of women in her mother’s jewellery box after her death along with Hippo brooch with letter BZ on back of it. Even though her father said to forget about the list and tried to threw it away, Bethan was sure the list was important but didn’t know how until years later she googled it. German roots of her mother, her love for animals as vet, hippo brooch, and the first name on the list- Katherina Heinroth, inspired her to land a job in Berlin Zoo and solve the mystery the names on the list. Back in 1943, Katherina the zookeeper of Berlin along with her husband and remaining zookeepers tried to save zoo and themselves from allied bombing and approaching Russians. Struggle, tragic events, and horrifying rumours about Russians forced her to plan the escape.

It was interesting to read what Katherine, other zookeeper, and even animals have gone through in this struggling time, how they survived and if they managed to escape, what Bethan’s list indicated and why her mother had those names, and how that list connected past and present.

Characters were amazing and there were lots of characters. I did keep a list so it was a bit easy for me, but I could see readers struggling without a list of characters as both present and past timeline introduced so many characters, all keepers, vets, zoo manager, and many other.

Bethan was great throughout the book. She was in her early thirties, loved animals and was amazing vet. But when it came to personal life, she was a bit less confident and yielding. I seriously don’t know why she was with her useless boyfriend who obviously didn’t respect her work and her bond with her parents and only was staying for free accommodation. It took her time in Berlin, with new friends and working on her mother’s list at zoo to realise that. Her development was slow but good. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I agreed with that boyfriend about no matter what list suggest and what she discovered about it from her father she shouldn’t forget the love she got from her family and it’s what matters at the end. But at the same time, I admired her determination and tenacity to get to bottom of it and how much she learned from it.  

Katherine was best character in the book. She was fiery, fierce, determined, resilient, lovely and amazing keeper who openly showed her views against Nazi party and the war, even though she knew the manager of zoo who was party member could report her and she could lose her life. Her love for zoo and zoofamilie was admirable. Even though she had degree and was competent, she wasn’t given the title of ‘Keeper’ as she was a woman and she still dedicated her life to zoo. It was amazing to read how she was running the zoo, helping the keeper, took those keepers who weren’t experienced under her wing and taught them all about animals, fought with her life and everything she had in her to keep them and zoo safe. I constantly worried for her even though it was evident she survived war from the very beginning. But wasn’t sure how and if other keepers survived or not which kept me flipping page faster.

I loved many secondary characters from 1943 timeline- Adelaide, Shasha and her husband, French men brought to Germany who worked in zoo, and cleaners- Ursula and Gisela – who were as expert as any keeper. In present timeline- Max, Ella, and Paul. Oh, and Monica- she sure steal the show and I’m sure she would be pleased with it.

Best part was the history. I have read how things were during WWII in London, France, other countries but I never read how it was like in the heart of the Germany, what people have gone through, how they suffered, had to follow party command even though they resisted it in their heart, and how women kept things going in Berlin because only they were left, even 13 yr. old kids and 60 yrs. old men were forced to fight the bloody war, and lived constantly in fear of Russian army. Reading all that gave different perspective for Germany in wartime.

It was heart wrenching to read how the war started by humans didn’t spare innocent animals. They were just meat after their horrible death because of bombing and even though it twisted keeper’s heart and stomach they had to cook and eat them without any objection as they never had full meal for who knows how long and have to share it with citizen who whenever possible gave something in exchange to keep living animals safe and alive; how Russians progressed in Berlin the situation got even worse, no water, no food, no protection, how they spent time in bunkers, and even birthed babies without doctor or midwife. That scene of women of Berlin fighting for cyanide was most terrifying.

There were so many layers in the book and even though story was filled with heart-breaking heavy subject with so much loss, pain and suffering, there was a lightness to it. Berliners weird dark humour and characters’ nature made me smile few times.

Mystery of list was really interesting. At around 25% we know how Bethan’s mother had the list of women and what they indicated but that didn’t solve how they were connected until story progress in both the timeline. It kept me guessing until it was revealed in last 10% of the book.

Climax was tense and sad. Both main character from different timeline had hopes and yet so much disappointments with unpredictability. But the turn of event just before end was like shining light in darkest time. I felt so happy for both of them, especially Katherine, it brought happy tears in my eyes. End was perfect, satisfying, uplifting, and filled with so much hope.

Overall, The Berlin Zookeeper was emotional, heart-breaking, and well written historical fiction that gave different view to Germany in WWII. I highly recommend this book to fans of this genre specially those who love this time period.

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Author Bio

Anna Stuart lives in Derbyshire with her campervan-mad husband, two hungry teenagers and a slightly loopy dog. She was hooked on books from the moment she first opened one in her cot so is thrilled to now have several of her own to her name. Having studied English literature at Cambridge university, she took an enjoyable temporary trip into the ‘real world’ as a factory planner, before returning to her first love and becoming an author. History has also always fascinated her. Living in an old house with a stone fireplace, she often wonders who sat around it before her and is intrigued by how actively the past is woven into the present, something she likes to explore in her novels. Anna loves the way that writing lets her ‘try on’ so many different lives, but her favourite part of the job is undoubtedly hearing from readers. You can reach her on Facebook @annastuartauthor or Twitter @annastuartbooks.


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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

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