Like many writers, I suspect, I've harboured fantasies about the odd favourable review. They're moments of happy self-delusion, which warm me for a second before the clouds of self-doubt scud back in. But in all my escapist reveries I never imagined the amazing response that my second novel, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise, is receiving in America.
The book tells of a beefeater and his wife who live in the Tower of London, their marriage in shreds following the death of their only child. Having never cried, he collects raindrops instead. Appointed Keeper of the new Royal Menagerie established at the Tower, he turns his attention to the badly behaved animals, and eventually learns to love again. Then there is the chaplain who writes erotica, the strange world of London Underground's Lost Property Office, and the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh who has a bad tobacco habit and keeps stealing potatoes.
It is admittedly a curious mix, and one that wasn't particularly easy to write. Perhaps the biggest challenge was handling the conflicting emotions I was trying to evoke in the reader. Having (hopefully) brought a lump to their throats in one scene, I had to be very careful not to suddenly bring on a cohort of penguins with yellow eyebrows in the next. Eager to share the Tower's fascinating history, there was also the task of slipping in all those intriguing tidbits -- such as Henry III's polar bear fishing for salmon in the Thames -- without breaking the narrative. There were numerous times when I wondered whether the novel would ever be published. Nevertheless, I kept writing, while my agent kept the faith.
It turned out to be a year of misspent angst as she sold the publishing rights in America as quick as a flash. There were particularly loud squeals that day. Yet despite the huge enthusiasm my publishers had for it, I never dreamed of such praise from critics and booksellers. Entertainment Weekly, which rather terrifyingly gives books grades, much like homework, gave it an A. The previous week my dentist had given me 94 percent for brushing. I'd assumed that that would be my life's crowning glory.
I'm not quite sure why America has taken to it with such affection. Perhaps it's the history, or the love stories. Maybe it's the monkeys that flash their private parts when feeling threatened. Whatever the reason, I'm stunned and eternally grateful.
I can, of course, now die happy. In more practical terms the amazing reviews increase the possibility of my next book being published, which is encouraging. And yes, of course I'm already wondering whether it will contain those unfathomable ingredients that captivate readers and critics alike.
But one of the biggest rewards to have come from this golden moment is the pleasure it has given my parents, who are in their seventies. Much to my father's indignation, during the summer holidays his copy of The Independent newspaper arrives too late to read while having breakfast. Instead he and my mother read the reviews and favourable comments I've emailed to them overnight. They live in chilly Scotland, a long, long way from me in dusty Cairo. It's comforting to know that something is keeping them warm as they eat their muesli. God bless America.