The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

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The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Eccentric, madcap, zany, magical and above all great fun, with a surprisingly profound depth to it. And it contains a character called Leonora Ticklepalate - that alone makes this book from the author of Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow well worth reading. Not for those seeking a gritty realistic novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846555848

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Danish writer Peter Høeg is best known for his third novel Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow, partly because it was made into one of the more beautiful movie adaptations of modern fiction. While his latest book, The Elephant Keepers' Children is unlikely to change that association, it is a magical, story told through the eyes of the charmingly precocious fourteen year old Peter, full of farcical events, zany chases and brilliantly named characters. If you are looking for a gritty, realistic novel, this won't fit the bill, but for all its madcap events, Høeg continues his arch view of events and has surprising depth in the form of philosophical consideration of religions and faith.

In many ways, it's a very different style of book to Miss Smilla but it retains elements of the same charm and playfulness. It's almost compulsory for Scandinavian writers to feature some kind of crime solving element to their books it seems (at least those that get translated into English) and while The Elephant Keepers' Children isn't your typical Inspector Norse story, it has at its warm heart a crime that young Peter and his siblings, the feisty Tilte and the older Hans, together with Peter's faithful dog, set out to prevent, not least as it appears that their parents are the likely perpetrators fo the crime.

Despite what you might expect from the title, Peter's parents are not zoological guardians of any kind. His father is a church minister on the fictitious Danish island of Finø, where he is accompanied on the organ by his wife, whose prodigious electronic and engineering skills have also helped her partner her husband in the faking of miracles that got them into trouble with the authorities before. The elephants in question are faith and the keepers are those who have 'something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control'.

The crime scene is set to be a General Synod of all the world's religions, not restricted to the major faiths but including the full range of belief systems, which is planned to be held in Copenhagen to look at areas that are common to all in the hope of reducing conflict and fundamentalism. While the philosophy of the book is present throughout, it is subtle and takes a back seat to the farcical adventures as the young trio set out to prevent the theft of religious artefacts gathered for the occasion. The final chapter though is deeply profound and moving as Peter completes another element to this book, that of the coming of age tale.

Perhaps the best way to judge if this book will be to your taste without divulging anymore of the wonderful plot, is to consider the eccentric names Høeg gives his equally strange characters. We meet Svend Sewerman, Bodil Hippopotamus, Alexander Flounderblood, Mina Thorlacius-Claptrap and, my personal favourite, Leonora Ticklepalate, to name just a few at random. Due credit for the superbly effective translation of these names must go to the book's translator Martin Aitken.

But the star of the piece, despite some stiff competition from Tilte, is the voice of Peter. Each time the story threatens to get a little too daft, or lost in its own eccentricity, Peter is on hand to pull the story back, usually with some poignant story from the past that explains things and often with reference to his time as a winger in the Finø football team.

There are not many books that feature the Dali Lama, the Pope, soft soap filled tunnels, a dead lady who frequently appears in unusual situations and two love-struck police officers. Eccentric, magical and mad, this is a joy of a book.

Our grateful thanks to the Elephant Keepers at Harvill Secker for sending us this book.

For more zany fun, albeit without the deeper elements, If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll is terrific while an altogether less madcap but equally magical and charming book, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey should definitely be on your reading list if you have enjoyed this book. Of course, you should also check out Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow but don't expect this to be completely in the same style - it's much more moody and lyrical than The Elephant Keepers' Children.

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