Fourth Estate £14.99 (277pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Elephant Keeper, By Christopher Nicholson

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

Click here to purchase this book

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral