The Candlelit Menagerie

Written by Caraline Brown
Review by J. Lynn Else

London, late 18th century. The roar of a lion calls to her, so Lillian follows the sound to a menagerie full of exquisite animals. When she’s offered a job, Lillian does everything possible to make the animals’ lives better. As an abnormally tall woman who prefers short hair and breeches, Lillian believes she’s found the place where she fits in. She meets a young veterinarian apprentice and soon starts a family. But as she plunges into danger attempting to save an animal from death, the price she pays is the life of her unborn child. To rouse Lillian from her mourning bed, the menagerie owner gives her a baby chimpanzee. Lillian finds a new purpose in raising the chimp despite her husband’s misgivings and the risk of social disgrace. This is a story about lost souls and the healing power of love.

Because of the times, there’s animal indifference and cruelty. While this is most likely period-accurate, it may sit uncomfortably with readers. The atmosphere is engrossing. That said, most setting observations are smells, which aren’t appealing and illustrate the unsanitary menagerie conditions. There are some random chapters that seem merely fluff rather than actual plot development, shifting the focus away from animals to unnecessary background characters. It took me almost half the novel to figure out what the plot was actually moving toward. I enjoyed the second half as Lillian comes into her own, fighting for better treatment of animals as well as acceptance as she mothers the orphan chimp. The first section could have used a tighter focus with a bit more time spent on the wonder the menagerie gives Lillian instead of its fetid conditions. Overall, while well-researched and full of unconventional characters, I don’t think the book quite reached its potential.