Harvill Secker £17.99

The Elephant Keepers' Children, By Peter Hoeg trs Martin Aitken

The digressive adventures of Count Rickardt Three Lions

On the charming island of Fino – a quaint cluster of churches, half-timbered 18th-century cottages, a medieval monastery and a flock of storks – Tilte and her younger brother Peter are super-precocious teens; part of a family of charismatic persuaders. While their father sermonises in church, their mother works as an organist, churchwarden and technical whiz: their home electrics are activated by the music of Schubert, and a special larder opens via speech recognition.

Tilte and Peter's older brother, Hans, has the looks of a fairytale prince, studies astrophysics, and earns his keep by driving a horse-drawn carriage. He also turns out to have a soft spot for a runaway singer in a green dress named Ashanti, who brings out his most knightly tendencies. "The trouble is my older brother was born 800 years too late," explains Peter in one of his many, many narrative asides. "He belongs to a chivalrous medieval age and considers all women to be princesses who may be approached only gradually by means of slaying dragons, for instance, or lying face down in puddles."

Tilte, who is firmly convinced that there are no problems, "only interesting challenges", is an imposing figure: "Tilte is only a tiny bit taller than me, and slightly built. But her hair is thick and curly, and the same colour red as a letter box." She has luxurious hair extensions, a phenomenal memory, and an "aura of military leadership". Peter, our loquacious guide, is only 14 but has already had his heart broken, and is a star footballer as well as having a superhuman sense of hearing.

The action kicks off when the mum and dad disappear in a flurry of unanswered questions (are they skilled con artists, jewel thieves or worse?) and various authority figures decide to take the teens into custody.

Peter Hoeg's novel, which uses the event of a world-class, multi-religious conference to juggle a multitude of religious and philosophical concepts, is nothing if not whimsical. At times, though, this playful exercise in whimsy tends towards the saccharine, and Peter's endless asides make the bulk of this story a tad too murky.

That said, there are some terrific set pieces, such as the ongoing madcap scenes of the corpse that's lost its coffin. Also good fun is the story of Katinka and Lars, dedicated members of the Police Intelligence Service and would-be lovers, who are so overwhelmed by the dark side of crime that they opt for a career change and become bus drivers.

In fact, the underlying structure of the book rests on a series of wacky characters including Count Rickardt Three Lions, a former addict turned addiction therapist given to sporting yellow leather trousers and gold chains, who sees little blue people everywhere; Professor Thorkild Thorlacius-Claptrap, a bigwig in neural research; Jakob Aquinas Bordurio Madsen, Tilte's ex-boyfriend who is busy trying to be a Catholic priest; Finn Flatfoot, Fino's finest policeman; and Leonora Ticklepalate, an IT guru who also specialises in phone sex for the culturally minded.

There's a comic caper crying to emerge from this novel, as Tilte and Peter pursue a collection of clues pointing to a plot that incorporates guns, boats, explosives, digital encryption and Sanskrit – but it requires a certain amount of reading patience to uncover it.

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape