Fourth Estate £14.99 (277pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
The Elephant Keeper, By Christopher Nicholson
Friday 23 January 2009
The rule in television is "never work with animals or children", but novelists might do well to take this in reverse. There is no quicker short-cut to livening up a story than including a child, a dog, a monkey or a wisecracking parrot. Animals are even more effective in historical fiction, where – unlike humans – they can behave timelessly. And the reader, meeting an elephant that trumpets just like those in modern zoos, is propelled into the heart of the story, happy to believe.
In The Elephant Keeper, his lush new novel of the late 18th century, Christopher Nicholson makes elephants his central characters, not just support acts. He tells the story of Jenny and Timothy, two elephants shipped to Bristol from India, and of their shy human protector Tom Page, who cares for them after his employer sets them up on his estate with the vague notion of breeding them for ivory. Naturally talented with animals, Tom manages the elephants' food and medicines, rides them like a mahout, and even imagines that he can communicate with them in a private mental language. He drifts further from human companionship, and closer to his elephants, whom he studies through a combination of zoological observation and apparent mind-reading.
The ivory plan is impracticable, so Tom's employer sells the elephants to two different buyers. Deserting his human girlfriend, Tom elects to follow Jenny as her keeper. They are taken into the household of Lord Bidborough, a kindly Sussex aristocrat who commissions Tom to write his own "True History of the Elephant", but succumbs to a stroke, leaving both Jenny and Tom at the mercy of his cruel and oafish heir. Things can only get worse, and they do.
Jenny is a magnificent character, more vivid than the humans – even Tom, who never entirely rises from the page, despite his full repertoire of vulnerabilities, failings and secret fantasies. The sexual overtones that creep into his obsession with Jenny are intriguing, but feel contrived. In general, Tom seems to have been put together too precisely by the novelist, whereas Jenny is just there: she ambles about, shuffles her great body from foot to foot, explores her surroundings with the tip of her trunk, and looks memorious and omniscient like elephants do.
She gives the book its weight, in every sense. Any stilted moments with the human characters are made up for by her, by other animals playing minor roles, and by the sheer richness of the story's texture. The Elephant Keeper evokes 18th-century village and estate life beautifully, and is stuffed with fascinating data from medical and veterinary history: recipes for medicaments of egg-yolk, turmeric and treacle, endless bouts of bleeding, tales of toads that suck out cancers, and even a rumour that powdered tusk is the best treatment for "elephant fever" – an idea to make even the most dignified elephant break into a hasty trot in the opposite direction.
Sarah Bakewell's 'The English Dane' is published by Vintage
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
London art exhibition features portrait of Iraqi migrant shot dead in Iraq after being refused UK asylum
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds