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Giraffe, by JM Ledgard

Communism gets it in the neck from a tall story about giraffes

On one level, JM Ledgard's debut novel is the story of a herd of giraffes taken from Africa to a zoo in 1970s Czechoslovakia. On another level - and we are frequently reminded that giraffes experience the world at a level different from our own - it is no less than the story of Czechoslovakia, a country and people caught in "the communist moment".

The giraffes are accompanied on part of their journey from Hamburg by Emil. His day job involves the study of blood flow in vertical creatures, but he occupies a dual role, sent along as an agent for the shipping company.

Emil becomes aware of the giraffes' otherness. Ledgard's descriptions of the animals emphasise this at the same time as subtly associating them with the trappings of totalitarianism: "The height of a giraffe makes watchtowers of them." The insistence on "the communist moment" is explained when Emil spends his first night in West Germany. He listens to pop songs and regards them as belonging to "now". In the communist moment, Emil writes, "there is no now, and it is possible to live without remembering the year, and to have no sense of time passing".

We live in the copywriters' moment. A jacket blurb these days tends to reveal two-thirds of any plot. In Giraffe, the entire narrative is encapsulated on the inside flap. That Ledgard still manages a gradual build-up of tension is evidence of his storyteller's skill. He does it by installing a number of different narrators and having them pass the storytelling baton, starting with Snehurka, the giraffes' protagonist, and moving on to Emil and others including Jiri, a sharpshooter.

Emil tells us that the optic nerve of a giraffe is as thick as an index finger, its eye the biggest in the animal kingdom. We infer that this ability to see further than any other creature leads to the giraffes' fate in the communist moment.

Amina, factory worker and sleepwalker, loves the animals because they awaken her. She would like them to perform the same function for her countrymen, "a nation asleep".

The inevitable bloody showdown, when all the narrators come together and retell the mayhem, is a tour de force, a fitting climax to a superb novel that is filled with compassion, yet never sentimental. I'm going to stick my neck out and call it a masterpiece.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection 'Mortality' will be published in October by Serpent's Tail

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