Fourth Estate £14.99

The Elephant Keeper, By Christopher Nicholson

A charming tale of aninter-species friendship

In 1765, a bedraggled cargo of exotic animals is landed at Bristol docks. It includes two elephant siblings, both in a wretched condition. John Harrington, a sugar merchant, buys them cut price, thinking to sell on at a profit, and entrusts them to his head groom's son, 12-year-old Tom Page. The bond formed between the boy and his charges is instant and, in one case, life long, through trial and tragedy. This charming first novel, told in Tom's tender, somewhat melancholic voice, is an account of this unusual relationship. Throughout, Nicholson, with a light hand, explores questions of how and why we make choices, and contrasts our attitudes to life with that of animals.

At Harrington's estate, near Glastonbury, Tom devotes himself to nursing the elephants – Timothy and Jenny, as he names them – back to health, and to taming and training them. He's aware that people are terrified of these strange beasts, and myth and rumour about elephants embellish his narrative. Many men, he knows, are used to dominating and disciplining animals rather than befriending them. Eventually Timothy is sold, much to Tom and Jenny's grief.

A Sussex aristocrat buys Jenny to ornament his splendid new park alongside its obelisk, its artificial lake and its sham hermit. Tom elects to go with her, abandoning home, family, and his sweetheart, Lizzy. When Lizzy begs him to stay, it's her bitter cry that Jenny is "only an elephant" that stiffens his resolve. Later in life, his hard-hearted choice will return to torment him.

Gouty Lord Bidborough – one of many delightfully drawn figures – proves an amiable employer. It is he who, hearing Tom is lettered, commissions the history. In the pleasant seclusion of the elephant house, the young keeper and the elephant deepen their ability to communicate and here the storyteller manipulates his audience. Tom dramatises whole conversations between man and beast – whether real or imagined it hardly seems to matter, they are so believable. Through them Jenny's personality emerges: she's whimsical, wise, patient, yet possesses a lively sense of amour propre. In such light, a set piece in which Bidborough's friends wittily discourse man's superiority over beasts, while riding in Jenny's howdah, makes the narrow-minded humans figures of fun.

Throughout, Tom interprets people's attitudes to animals – tender or brutal, timidly respectful or contemptuous – as an indication of their moral worth. While doing this, Nicholson never betrays the tenor of the times. Later, another of Jenny's long line of owners, Mr Cross, employs Tom to exploit the shabby beasts of his London menagerie in ways we'd frown on in zoos today. Being neither deliberately cruel nor neglectful, Tom presents him as tolerable and the animals as mildly complicit. Instead of railing at her lot, Jenny teaches Tom the valuable lesson that pleasure and possibility might be found in the most constrained of circumstances.

Click here to purchase this book

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week