The Elephant Keepers' Children By Peter Høeg, trans. Martin Aitken

On a Danish island, as all over the West, cults and fads edge out old faith. This novel counts the cost

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Of Denmark's 443 named islands, Finø cannot be found on any map. But Peter Høeg, that assiduous novelist of exploration whose third book, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, made him an international celebrity, makes it credible enough geographically and – allowing for the selectivity of lively travel writing - demographically too. It lies well beyond Læsø and Anholt in the Kattegat, nearer the Swedish coast than to Jutland or Sjælland. With its superb seascapes, it attracts many tourists. For their benefit its inhabitants wear folk costume and drive about in horse-drawn traps, with the main town closed to ordinary traffic in summer. Half the population works in fishing (langoustines and turbot) or with boats, the rest in service industries.

But the community has not remained inviolate from the mainland. Its comparative freedom from complex tensions has enabled cults and religious societies, however recherché, to flourish like green bay trees, together with erotic hedonists and substance-abusers both practising and reformed. Finø can boast, for example, a lodge of the Knights of the Blue Beam, a Buddhist sex counsellor, a Hindu woman bank-manager. There is also the regular Lutheran Church, and it is Peter, the 14-year-old son of its pastor, who is both our guide to the island and the narrator of a history of scandalous events instigated by his own parents.

In competition with all the spiritual tripping around them, the pastor and his organist/inventor wife decided, before the novel's action begins, to make church services more dramatic, more in tune with the miraculous supposedly at the heart of Christianity. When the words Holy Spirit were read out from the New Testament, lo, an actual white dove descended; on a windless day its members heard a rush of wind at the mention in a sermon of the Angels of Revelation; puffs of smoke emanated from graves in the churchyard.

Of course, the pair couldn't get away with such outrageous legerdemain, and only escaped professional chastisement by being diagnosed as suffering from stress. But they have not abandoned their heterodox ways, and by the time of the novel's opening they have disappeared - a disappearance which national police and security forces have to follow up. It cannot be a coincidence that there is a large-scale ecumenical conference imminent in Copenhagen. Peter, his clever sister Tilte and his brother Hans are sure their parents intend to subvert it.

At first Copenhagen appears to these young people as Finø writ large. What richness lies here "with the wellness centres of northern Sjælland, macrobiotics, yoga, Dr Bach's flower remedies and Balinese massage". This is only the start of the panegyric. With this passage, Høeg's thinking becomes clearer to the reader. Tolerance, acceptance of a plurality of world-views, amused recognition of idiosyncrasies, even self-indulgences – these are beautiful attributes for a society to possess. Cruelty and suffering stain (and continue to stain) those organisations or communities denying their importance. They are almost inseparable from contemporary Western living at its most civilised and agreeabl. In Britain, as in Denmark, and in the Welsh Marches where I live, the devotees of esoteric, spirit-heightening activities are everywhere.

But a sense of proportion has to be maintained. Too easily these become the mere flipsides of consumerism, comfortable, even lazy ways of endowing life with seeming significance without making any creative demands on intellect or emotion, without respecting the vast swathes of humankind for which so much metaphysical variety would be lethally impossible. And if Finø is to be taken as a microcosm for Denmark (for which, substitute any other advanced European democracy), do not its dependence on tourism, on the pleasures rather than the needs of others, and the dissociation of so many of its inhabitants from necessary labour constitute the ideal soil for quasi-religious dilettantism to flourish?

Høeg has, from the first, been characterised by prodigious inventiveness. It is his most precious asset – and his greatest liability. The Elephant Keepers' Children partakes substantially of tragi-comic farce. Satire, wild shenanigans, desperate chases, mistaken identities, a corpse popping up at just the wrong time, pursuers and pursued: all succeed each other at inordinate speed, holding the attention (though sometimes occasioning puzzlement). Høeg's other great gifts are his ability to seize on a galvanising central image and his interest in individuals at the margins of society.

In Miss Smilla the first was represented by the protagonist's inherited understanding of snow, enabling her to identify the direction of footsteps and thus interpret a child's last movements; the second by authorial empathy with the Inuit community living in virtual exile in Copenhagen. In his latest novel, the central image occurs in the title. Many of us, but especially ideologues like church leaders, carry inside us the elephant of belief, a creature too enormous and unwieldy for ordinary living. Peter's clerical parents are encumbered by this burden and it, in its turn, imposes further burdens on their offspring.

Høeg's powers of sympathy are shown in The Elephant Keepers' Children by his handling of his narrator, with his touching identification with his local team, Finø FC, and his open love for his two siblings. If his voice can be too determinedly jocular, it is also both attractive and compelling. And when it descends into a more sombre register, it not only convinces but makes one wish it had been given rather fewer opportunities for black-comedy hilarity.

His feelings about death and solitude are expressed with an inspiriting poetry proceeding from psychic depths: "My attention is turned one way, towards loneliness, and I go the other. From the feeling of loneliness to what surrounds it. From being trapped within myself, inside the joys and sorrows that make up Peter Finø and which reside like tiny, floating islands adrift within us all, I shift my attention to what those islands are adrift upon."

Paul Binding's new novel is 'After Brock' (Seren); his life of Hans Christian Andersen is forthcoming from Yale