Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Elephant Keeper - Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper
Christopher Nicholson
William Morrow (Publisher)
Copyright: 2009
978-0061651601 product description:
"I asked the sailor what an Elephant looked like; he replied that it was like nothing on earth."
England, 1766: After a long voyage from the East Indies, a ship docks in Bristol, England, and rumor quickly spreads about its unusual cargo—some say a mermaid is on board. A crowd forms, hoping to catch a glimpse of the magical creature. One crate after another is unpacked: a zebra, a leopard, and a baboon. There's no mermaid, but in the final two crates is something almost as magical—a pair of young elephants, in poor health but alive.
Seeing a unique opportunity, a wealthy sugar merchant purchases the elephants for his country estate and turns their care over to a young stable boy, Tom Page. Tom's family has long cared for horses, but an elephant is something different altogether. It takes time for Tom and the elephants to understand one another, but to the surprise of everyone on the estate, a remarkable bond is formed.
The Elephant Keeper, the story of Tom and the elephants, in Tom's own words, moves from the green fields and woods of the English countryside to the dark streets and alleys of late-eighteenth-century London, reflecting both the beauty and the violence of the age. Nicholson's lush writing and deft storytelling complement a captivating tale of love and loyalty between one man and the two elephants that change the lives of all who meet them. 
The Elephant Keeper is a book I picked up on a whim (or rather, I was looking for something to read, after abandoning Lorri Moore's A Gate At The Stairs) thinking it looked interesting. It was indeed. Originally this was going to be the book I reviewed for Royal Reviews, but then I just discovered that I'd marked down the wrong row, and I'm supposed to have a YA novel for that one. I've still got time to get that done though, and therefore I'm reviewing this one here.

It's a book that constantly makes you question whether or not you're reading a novel. It's written as if it's a biography of a young man who has ended up making his life through caring for an elephant. At times it almost felt like I was there.

The whole book is written from his perspective, save for the last chapters, as he struggles with the task of writing a history of the Elephant, the history of Jenny, the elephant it has become his task to care for. At the same time we learn about the young man's life, the changes that caring for the creature has made, and the effects it has had on how he lives. Through the course of the book, Tom becomes very real and you feel for the highs and the lows.

I loved the 'dialogues' between Tom and the Elephant (Jenny). They're just charming. It's as though she's another person in the story, rather than just an animal. She's as much of a character (or more than) as any of the people walking around on two legs in the book.

Christopher Nicholson's book has a very ambiguous ending that left me questioning everything about it. Even the book's status as a novel. Is it based on fact? is there a true story behind this book somewhere? I'd love to know, but then that might take away some of the magic of the story.

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