Admittedly, 12-year-old Tom Page is no Gulliver, but he’s way ahead of his time (late 18th-century England) in his belief that animals and humans can interact with respect—and even love—on both sides. So it is fortuitous that Tom’s sugar-merchant master puts him in charge of two Indian elephants, delivered on British soil as exotic curiosities and almost dead after a long journey by ship with little food or care.

In Christopher Nicholson’s remarkable debut, The Elephant Keeper, Tom nurses the elephants back to life. He names them Jenny and Timothy, and together, the three of them bond on the palatial estate of a wealthy local man. Later, the kindly Lord Bidborough buys Jenny, but Timothy, whose hormones often render him fairly uncontrollable, is sold away. Tom, now 17, accompanies Jenny, and the two of them live the best years of their lives together at Lord Bidborough’s Sussex manor. Lord Bidborough suggests that Tom write a “history of the elephant” and doubtfully Tom starts “a simple account of particulars.” Gaining confidence, he launches into a joint biography/autobiography so engaging that at least one reviewer kept forgetting to make notes and simply charged ahead to find out what happens next.

First-time novelist Nicholson has produced many programs for BBC World Service about animals and humans. Here he does justice to both, establishing an unexpected venue of British aristocratic whimsy, along with an unforgettable picture of an elephant/human relationship so close that, as the elephant learns to think like a human, she teaches her human to think like an elephant, too.

After a Bidborough heir returns home, things deteriorate fast. In the end, a clever abandonment of literal storytelling succeeds in persuading the reader that, against all odds, Jenny and Tom survive into health and happiness together. This is one of the best books of the year, and “the crinkled line of writing on the distant horizon” promises a bittersweet ending that eases the heart, though it may boggle the mind.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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