When a novel opens with a giraffe describing its birth, you know you are in for something different. J M Ledgard's debut, based on real events, describes the capture, transportation and brutal massacre of the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world.
The book's two human narrators are Emil, a haemodynamicist, and Amina, a somnambulist factory worker. Emil has been chosen to accompany the herd as it is transported from Africa to communist Czechoslovakia in 1973. His specialist interest is in the way blood flows in tall creatures - apparently very useful for the design of space suits. However, he is soon transfixed by the majesty of his travel companions, which come to symbolise the freedom and wonder of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. "They are impossible," he thinks, "there is no such animal."
For Amina, an orphan, the giraffes also represent something magical. She works in a factory making Christmas decorations. A sleepwalker, she is content adding excitement to her life by escaping into her dreams. But with the giraffes' arrival comes the hope of something more. She wishes to "gently lift out of the commu-nist moment", to rise, as the giraffes do, beyond the ambitions of her fellow workers, who sleepwalk through their lives. Such moments, when the giraffes enlighten all who come into contact with them, stand out most in a novel that shrewdly places the bewitching animals against the lifeless backdrop of 1970s Czechoslovakia.
The reader, too, is likely to be captivated. One giraffe, named Snehurka (or Snow White), is of particular interest. So called because of her underbelly, which is like "a blizzard", she is the animal we follow out of the birth canal. She becomes the leader of the herd, the first to venture outside the barn into the yard in the zoo, and the last to be butchered at the horrific climax of the novel.
Czech government officials claim that the giraffes have contracted a contagion and must be "liquidised" to prevent it spreading. In an undercover operation on the night before May Day in 1975, Jiri, a reluctant sharpshooter, kills every last giraffe. The scene is hellish: Emil wades knee-deep through blood while Amina, who has sneaked into the zoo, is forced to shine a light into the eyes of the giraffes to stun them. If this is how it happened, one can only pity those who were there.
We learn at the end that the zoo still awaits an official explanation for the events that night, and all the documentation has since been destroyed. Ledgard displays admirable dedication in fictionalising this shameful episode. Giraffe is a work of obvious passion and great skill.