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

The digressive adventures of Count Rickardt Three Lions

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The Independent Culture

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.