Short Books contacted me last week and asked if they could send me some books. Nowadays before I say yes, because I know I am just a book tart, I do check out the website of the publishers if I don't know them to see if I feel that I would like to receive books from this particular house. Please don't think I am being picky and turning up my nose at publisher generosity, au contraire. When I first started blogging and discovered that books for review were being offered to me, I went a bit potty and took everything and then felt incredibly guilty if (a) I didn't like them and (b) didn't review them. So now I always check out the subject matter and if I genuinely don't think it is for me then I write and say so as I don't think it is right to take any book just for the sake of having it. I find publishers usually appreciate this attitude and then are happy to send me that which I think I will like when I ask.
OK so to cut short this witter, I did take a look at Short Books and they certainly seemed to have an eclectic mix so I said yes please and a few days later a lovely parcel of books arrived amongst which was Jeremy and Amy, the sub-title of which is The Extraordinary story of one Man and his Orang-Utang. Now on the face of it, this book did not sound promising, I mean why would I want to read a book about a man and an orang-utan (though I will admit I found Any which way but Loose the movie with Clint Eastwood and an orang-utan great fun), but I decided to give it a whirl and soon found myself totally engrossed in this story.
Jeremy came from a seriously dysfunctional family with two parents who disliked each other intensely and were far more interested in the animals they looked after in their ramshackle zoo than their children. When Jeremy was a baby and the heating was down in the reptile house he would find himself sharing a bed with his mother and a giant python. His mother didn't seem too bothered about this, or worry that the python might view Jeremy as a snack, but as she threw Jeremy out of the house when he was only 12 for daring to see his father who, by now, had left the family home, it is fairly clear that maternal feelings were not part of her DNA. He ended up living a hand to mouth existence and lived in a broken down caravan in a field. I am amazed that he survived both physically and mentally, but he did and then he obtained a job at Colchester Zoo (just down the road from me) and later went to manage a private zoo run by one Gordon Mills who had discovered Tom Jones amongst others.
Though this book is titled Jeremy and Amy it is not a story of his relationship with just one animal, endearing and amusing though she was, but the story of his relationship with all animals, and monkeys in particular, which seemed to replace his family and normal relationships. He has been married five times, though he says his last wife is 'the best', first time at 18 to a woman some twelve years older than him and, again, it is clear that he is seeking stability and love which has been seriously lacking. Amy is the one ever present thread running through his life as he lurches from one relationship to another. Then there is a turning point when he meets Jim Cronin, a fellow zoo keeper who is obsessed with monkeys and whose dream was to open a sanctuary for monkeys in Dorset.
The second half of the book details the struggles, ups and downs and near financial disasters involved in the setting up of Monkey World which is now internationally famous and attracts some three quarters of a million visitors a year.
The point of this book is that you can find happiness and redemption out of the most appalling and difficult childhood and conditions and the reader has to admire Jeremy's determination and his fight for his beloved monkeys, his ups and downs, his endless visits to hospital with bites, broken bones, dislocated back etc etc which he seems to take in his stride and his sheer bloody mindedness and never say die attitude. And of course, there is a reason why he is unable to form long lasting human relationships, a secret he has kept nearly all his life but which we are made privy to near the end of the book. It is all revealed in a very matter of fact way and I, personally, was pleased that this was not used as an excuse for a 'misery memoir'. Instead, we have a heart warming book and while I am pretty certain that Jeremy would probably be a pain in the neck to live with, being totally focused and obsessive, we need people like him in this world who are dedicated to a cause and see it through.
And Amy? She is enormous fun. She sulks, she ignores Jeremy when he does something she dislikes; she is furious at being turfed out of her comfortable billet where she had been raised by him after her mother rejected her, and being put into an animal enclosure; refuses to climb a tree and when she does, gets stuck and he has to fetch her down; she is sheer delight and comes into her own when Jeremy is involved in a serious car crash when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car with Amy in the passenger seat. The first policeman on the scene crawled into the upturned car and finds an unconscious Jeremy with his head being cradled by Amy who refused to let him go.
One of the reasons I normally avoid books like this is because they make me cry. I was traumatised when reading Lassie Come Home as a child, reading Charlotte's Web to my daughters when young reduced me to tears, a couple of years ago I read Marley and Me and was awash at the end, so fully expected to be reduced to a puddle by the end of this one.
But I wasn't. And this was because Jeremy, while loving his animals and, yes shedding tears when they died, is pragmatic about it. He knows that if you are going to run a zoo or set up a monkey sanctuary this is going to happen and he deals with it in a straightforward way so the reader does as well. Instead we concentrate on the lives of those monkeys he saved from all over the world who now are well looked after and free from pain and cruelty.
Delighted to find that my doubts about my enjoyment of Jeremy and Amy were proved wrong. Do read.