“Last days had begun then …ships had stopped coming to Australia and no planes had landed for weeks. Everything was breaking down.”
Have you ever been to a zoo? The setting for this post apocalyptic book is our Sydney zoo Taronga which is located on the beautiful harbour. But there is nothing beautiful in the world now. This book presents a dystopian society where civilization has broken down and life is extremely dangerous. Survival is everything.
The story opens with the main character Ben using his talent to ‘call’ animals on a hunting expedition with a man called Greg. It is obvious right from the opening lines that Ben is being used by Greg. That somehow Greg is his master. Ben hates luring defenseless animals to their death. He has tried previously to escape from Greg. This time he is successful. He makes a dangerous journey across the Blue Mountains to Parramatta and on to Sydney. Victor Kelleher describes a landscape ruined beyond all recognition. Ben hopes to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge and reach his old home in Coogee but his way is blocked by a violent gang and he is captured to be used as bait for the wild cats roaming the zoo. This gang do not know Ben has a gift of animal communication. He is able to warn and control the wild animals and can easily win their trust. All except for the tiger Raja. He will not be tamed.
Inside the zoo Ben discovers the garden of Eden but this illusion is quickly shattered when he realizes the people inside the zoo are just as crazy for power, at all costs, as the gangs outside.
Taronga is a violent and at times quite confronting book but it is not a book without hope. The friendship between Ben and Ellie slowly develops as does the relationship between Ben and the tiger Raja. Ben is a special boy and his humanity and compassion bode well for the future - the future of these two young people, the animals they have set free and perhaps for the new society that must emerge from these dark times. There are strong echoes of the Noah story in this book.
I first read this book in 1987 when it was short listed for our CBCA awards. If you want to read a thriller with a true Australia flavour then look for Taronga in your library. You might also enjoy Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien, Tomorrow when the war began by John Marsden, Parkland by Victor Kelleher (also set in the zoo), Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein and Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett. If you like to read about special heroes then you should look for The Giver and sequels by Lois Lowry.